Is Kerry James Marshall about to take on Star Wars?

The celebrated US artist says he wants to see his Rythm Mastr comic book turned into a feature film
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Kerry James Marshall, Rythm Mastr, 1999–present. Courtesy of the artist. From Kerry James Marshall: Mastry
Kerry James Marshall, Rythm Mastr, 1999–present. Courtesy of the artist. From Kerry James Marshall: Mastry

Kerry James Marshall is a painter with a good eye for what’s missing from a picture. “In the field of representation there’s the privileged image and the marginalized image,” the African-American artist told Phaidon.com in 2014. “And the privileged image takes up a lot of space in our imagination and a lot of space in our desire.”

Many of Marshall’s pictures serve as a kind of redress, by showing happy, successful African American people in settings we may, in an unthinking manner, associate with white figures.

 

Kerry James Marshall, Rythm Mastr, 1999–present. Courtesy of the artist. From Kerry James Marshall: Mastry
Kerry James Marshall, Rythm Mastr, 1999–present. Courtesy of the artist. From Kerry James Marshall: Mastry

However, Marshall also has a more fantastical take on this visual privilege. Since the late 1990s, the artist has been working on a comicbook series, entitled Rythm Mastr, a superhero saga placing both black characters and black mythology at the centre of the story.

Marshall started the series in part to rebalance the racial make-up of comicbook characters. In a 2001 interview he explained, with a fanboy’s precision, that “there weren’t any black characters in the pantheon of superheroes until the Black Panther entered the scene in The Fantastic Four, Issue 52, in 1965. Since then,” he went on, “there have been black superheroes as parts of teams of superheroes in Marvel comics, and in some other comics, but there hadn’t been many independent black superheroes who had a comic of their own that could sustain itself for a long time.”

 

Kerry James Marshall, Rythm Mastr, 1999–present. Courtesy of the artist. From Kerry James Marshall: Mastry
Kerry James Marshall, Rythm Mastr, 1999–present. Courtesy of the artist. From Kerry James Marshall: Mastry

Marshall’s series, which draws on West African religion, as well as a contemporary, urban African-American setting, has sustained itself fairly well over the past couple of decades. A Rythm Mastr mural was on display beside the High Line at 22nd Street and 10th Avenue in New York up until the middle of last month, and panels from Marshall’s series have been included in his solo exhibitions around the world.

Now, this coming weekend, a huge Kerry James Marshall retrospective will open at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, before travelling on to New York and Los Angeles within the next twelve months. The show, entitled, Kerry James Marshall: Mastry, includes quite a few Rythm Mastr images, alongside Marshall’s better-known portraits. Yet, in an interview with the Art Newspaper conducted to promote the new show, Marshall says he believes his strip could reach a wider audience.

 

Kerry James Marshall, Rythm Mastr, 1999–present. Courtesy of the artist. From Kerry James Marshall: Mastry
Kerry James Marshall, Rythm Mastr, 1999–present. Courtesy of the artist. From Kerry James Marshall: Mastry

“Ideally, it would be fully realised as an animated feature film,” the artist told the paper. “Really, it would have to be epic in scope. It’s on the scale of something like Star Wars, or Blade Runner or the Alien cycle. If I’m looking at touchstones in movies that I think do what I think this one should do, it sort of fits into those kind of mythic arcs.”

 

 Kerry James Marshall. Photo: Kendall Karmanian.
Kerry James Marshall. Photo: Kendall Karmanian.

Got that, Disney? For more on the MCA Chicago show go here; for more on this artist and his place within the current contemporary art canon, order a copy of The 21st Century Art book here.


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