Ernest “Ernie” Barnes (b. 1938–2009) was born in segregated Durham, North Carolina. Raised at the height of Jim Crow racism and racial profiling, Barnes garnered an aesthetic knowledge through the books and catalogues he had access to at the home of his mother’s employer, a prominent Durham attorney. Through these experiences, he would be exposed not only to art history, but to the soul and spirit of the South—what he would come to call the “spiritual currency of the ghetto.” His aptitude for depicting his subjects—ebullient scenes of Black joy and athleticism, and lyrical, Southern life—would evolve into a signature, “neo-mannerist” style of painting. Taking influence from the figuration of the Italian Mannerists, Barnes painted elongated, sinuous figures with closed-eyes and distorted limbs. He also carefully studied 20th century American Masters, including Thomas Hart Benton, Andrew Wyeth, and Charles White. His richly layered compositions showcase his experience as a professional athlete for the NFL as well as the scenes of rural, southern Black life he grew up with: young men playing makeshift basketball with peach-baskets; a swirling mash of sportsmen and their muscled bodies; and rhythm and blues dance halls punctured with people and passion.
Barnes was well ahead of his time socially. Believing that the struggles of poverty offered a depth of meaning not available to most observers, Barnes criticized the stultifying effect that the media had on representations of poor Black youth. His work reflected the social contradictions inherent in the myth of the culturally deprived, Black subject. He committed his work to redressing the dominant paradigm of his era—that Black art was “culturally blind”—into paintings which showcased virtuosity and Black vitality.
Recent solo exhibitions of Barnes’ work include Liberating Humanity from Within, UTA Artists Space, Los Angeles (2020); Ernie Barnes: A Retrospective, California African American Museum, Los Angeles (2019); and The North Carolina Roots of Artist Ernie Barnes, North Carolina Museum of History, Raleigh (2018-2019), among others. Barnes’ work is currently held in the permanent collections of the African American Museum in Philadelphia; California African American Museum, Los Angeles; Pro Football Hall of Fame, Canton, Ohio; Brigham Young University Museum of Art, Provo, Utah; North Carolina Central University Art Museum, Durham; and the American Sport Art Museum and Archives, Daphne, Alabama, among others.