Elizabeth Colomba’s “157 Years of Juneteenth”

Françoise Mouly interviews U.S.-Martinican artist Elizabeth Colomba about the upcoming Juneteenth celebration and her creative work (featured on the cover of this issue of The New Yorker, 20 June 2022). “The artist discusses Harlem and the necessity of painting Black bodies into historically white spaces.”

Sunday, June 19th, will mark a hundred and fifty-seven years since the U.S. Army General Gordon Granger announced to the people of Galveston, Texas, that slavery was over. Granger’s announcement came in 1865, more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation. And it is in that delay, in the “vast chasm between the concept of freedom inscribed on paper and the reality of freedom in our lives,” the New Yorker staff writer Jelani Cobb has written, that the true meaning of Juneteenth was and continues to be found. “In that regard,” Cobb added, “Juneteenth exists as a counterpoint to the Fourth of July; the latter heralds the arrival of American ideals, the former stresses just how hard it has been to live up to them.” We talked to the artist Elizabeth Colomba about what inspired her first cover for the magazine.

You knew early on that you wanted to be a painter. Who have been your greatest influences?

It all started with my mother. My mom was always making things: knitting, sewing, and building. She encouraged my artistic talent and taught me to be inquisitive and observant. The paintings of Vermeer, Velázquez, Caravaggio, and Sargent mesmerize me. I am also influenced by the film director Euzhan Palcy and the writers Aimé Césaire, Joseph Zobel, and Victor Hugo, for their mastery of storytelling.

Your family has roots in Martinique, you grew up outside of Paris, and you’re now settled in New York. How do these places affect your work?

I live in Harlem, and I find inspiration in a community which is similar in some ways to my Martinican background and my European upbringing. Historical Haarlem, a Dutch settlement, and today’s Harlem, buzzing with energy and Blackness, both infuse my work visually and intellectually.

Your paintings and watercolors are often inspired by historical material. What interests you about the past?

One of the roles of portraiture is to anchor you in history. There’s something glorious about being immortalized via this medium, which explains all the portraits of aristocrats, royal families, or landowners. A portrait was and is an acknowledgment of your importance and of your active participation in building a history, a country, and a past.

Yet Black figures aren’t much documented in paint. What I like to do is to insert Black bodies into historically white spaces and thus into the canon of painting. I want to create images that challenge our learned perceptions and unconscious reactions, and therefore help us reëvaluate what we know. [. . .]

For full article, continue reading at https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cover-story/cover-story-2022-06-20

[Top image: Cover of The New Yorker by ; photo: “The artist referenced century-old family portraits in her cover image. Woman holding a child [between 1900 and 1920]”/ Courtesy Archives of Ontario.]

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