Through Gilded Portraits, Tawny Chatmon Envisions a Dazzling Future


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“Iconography/A Hopeful Truth” (2022-2023), 24k gold leaf, 22k moon gold, acrylic paint, semi-precious stones, and other mixed media on archival pigment print, 56 x 42 inches. All images © Tawny Chatmon, shared with permission

“Whenever I think about the future, I think about my children and the fact that I feel that the future does not belong to me; it belongs to them,” says Tawny Chatmon (previously). “The work I’m creating now is what I’m manifesting for their present and future.”

Often centering her portraiture on adolescents, Chatmon is visionary, imagining a time when children are “living in peace, being safe, being protected, being free of stereotypes, living freely and joyously, being treated gently by the world.” This dream is rooted in a long-held desire for young Black people to be recognized as inherently valuable and significant, visualized through the artist’s signature glimmering embellishments.

Reminiscent of Gustav Klimt’s works and pastiglia, or low-relief decorations, of 15th-century Italian artists, Chatmon’s Remnants and Pastoral Scenes series overlay portraits with gold leaf, acrylic paint, semi-precious stones, and other mixed-media. The gilded additions often cloak garments and sometimes the backdrop, while the works retain the original photographic depiction of the sitter’s face and limbs.

Remnants contains cut-and-pasted scraps from the artist’s early paintings, and Pastoral Scenes positions the figures against distant landscapes. Both series, though, honor ancestral ties and emphasize the need to break free from outdated modes of being. “My work is a beautiful resistance simply because it exists,” she says. “Existence, by definition, is the state of being alive or being real, and despite early depictions of Black bodies as background or ‘other’ in Western art, while primarily centering whiteness, we are real. We always have been.”

 

“Iconography/In honor of the sacred divinity that exists within us” (2023), 24k gold leaf, paper, acrylic on archival pigment print, 47 x 35 inches

Chatmon takes a similar approach in her ongoing Iconography series, which evokes Byzantine-era works that depict religious figures through dense mosaics. “These visual declarations were used to assist the observer in focusing on all things sacred and were viewed more as literal prayers than art. Believed to serve as conduits to the divine, each was meticulously crafted by an iconographer embarking on a journey of prayer and meditation,” she shares.

Her pieces draw on this tradition through swaths of gold tesserae that transcend the earthly. In “A Hopeful Truth,” Chatmon fashions flowing, metallic garments for two young girls, who embrace in front of a tiled backdrop with blue, floral filigree. Another work, “In honor of the sacred divinity that exists within us,” features the artist’s daughter wearing a robe draped over her shoulders and a gown with a portrait of Harriet Tubman near her heart. “Just as Byzantine icons serve as windows to the spiritual realm, may my icons serve as means of sending gratitude to our ancestors and a connection to those who helped shape our lives throughout history,” the artist says.

And the devotional nature of these early Roman works isn’t lost on Chatmon. For each piece, she pre-determines what she’s hoping to communicate and when complete, considers “what I want the work to do once shared with others by saying a prayer over the work and setting intentions.”

Chatmon currently has a limited-edition print available through Art + Culture to support The Last Resort Artist Retreat, a residency for Black creatives. She also has work in several exhibitions opening in the coming weeks, including group shows at Galerie Myrtis in Baltimore, the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, and Florida State University’s Museum of Fine Arts. You can follow her latest endeavors on Instagram.

 

“Remnants/I Was Born to Stand in the Light” (2020-2022), 24k gold leaf, paper, acrylic, other mixed media on archival pigment print, 63 x 41 inches

“Pastoral Scenes/Ralisha” (2021-2022), 24k gold leaf, acrylic, semi-precious stones, thermoplastic polymer resin, and other mixed media on archival pigment print, 56 x 36 inches

“Bridgetower Frieze” (2021), 24k gold leaf and acrylic on archival pigment print, 40 x 30 inches

“Remnants/Aunt Mattie’s Beloved Frock” (2021), 24k gold leaf, paper, acrylic on archival pigment print, 30 x 24 inches

“Iconography/And All Generations Shall Call Us Blessed (before completion)” (2022), 24k gold leaf, paper, abalone shell, and acrylic on archival pigment print, 44 x 36 inches

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