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Retracing, Retelling: Portraits by Jamillah Jennings

Retracing, Retelling 

Portraits by Jamilliah Jennings 

Jamillah Jennings’s works on paper are a project that communicates urgency, necessity, a burst of prolific activity.  Jennings was known an abstract sculptor - a welder in steel. Her work was selected by April Kingsley for the important Afro-American Abstraction exhibition at P.S.1, New York, in 1980.  

The suite of paintings on paper she made in the 1990s was an intuitive body of work, responding to found family photographs. The black and white photographs, two of which are collaged onto the actual sheet, were faded and grayed by time.  Jennings turns her source material into compositions with vivid color planes and rich patterning, using a combination of acrylic paint and graphite on thick cotton paper. This gives them a dense materiality and tactility - the sheen and plasticity of the acrylic paint mixing with the softness of the paper.  

The work has a potent combination of intimacy and distance. Hers is a world seen through the eyes of a child. The paintings represent African American military men and Jennings’ family. The depictions of the children — some of whom are Jennings herself as a young girl — feel the most direct, and loaded with emotion. When the children are posed on their own, they fill the majority of the sheet, pressing forward into our space, meeting our gaze directly. We feel the girl’s attachment to her belongings: a bunny stuffed animal, a red sack and painted wood stool, a puffed-sleeve white dress, Mary Jane shoes and white booties.  

The adults often seem further off: occupying their own mental or emotional world, occasionally stern-faced. Jennings, who studied at the School of Visual Arts and Pratt Institute in the 1970s, harnesses a simplicity in her painterly style and the occasional awkwardness of the subject’s pose, which suggests a young person’s vision.  

Publisher: Eric Firestone Press 
Title: Retracing, Retelling: Portraits by Jamillah Jennings
Contributors:   Jennifer Samet,
Publication Date:  September 2021
Binding: Softcover
Dimensions: 10 x 8 in
Pages: 64
Retail: $40

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