Painting Community and Honoring History

Mario Moore, The Center of Creation (Michael), 2019. Oil on linen. Princeton University Art  Museum. Museum purchase, Fowler McCormick, Class of 1921, Fund. © Mario MooreA new series of portraits by the artist Mario Moore, recipient of the 2018–19 Mary MacKall Gwinn Hodder Fellowship in Visual Arts at the Lewis Center for the Arts, celebrates individuals who help to shape the character of a university campus and yet rarely find themselves the focus of formal portraiture initiatives. In Moore’s paintings, African American men and women who are members of the University’s staff are depicted in their campus work settings. The work Several Lifetimes highlights the roles of Howard Sutphin, Valeria Sykes, and Kaniesha Long, three members of the Rockefeller-Mathey dining hall staff. Gathered around the stovetop, they remind Moore of the almost familial connection he felt with the service workers during his days as an undergraduate. Those who cared for the students, tended to their environment, and protected their safety were individuals Moore saw on a daily basis; they also represented the largest group of fellow African Americans on campus.

In these workers Moore saw his ancestors and his community, in particular his father, who worked as a security officer at the Detroit Institute of Arts during Moore’s childhood. Fittingly, then, two of the portraits feature members of the Art Museum’s security staff. Security officer Guy Packwood is shown at the entrance to Picturing Protest (2018), an exhibition that included photographs of key events of the civil rights movement. Moore begins each portrait with a conversation with his subject. In the course of their exchange, Moore discovered Packwood’s connection to the events of that era, his past work as a police officer, and his path to Princeton.

Mario Moore (American, born 1987), Several Lifetimes, 2019. Oil on canvas. Princeton University. © Mario MooreIn The Center of Creation, security officer Michael Moore holds open the elevator door, greeting visitors to the Museum’s Kienbusch Galleries. However, only one of the artworks shown in the painting is in the Museum’s collections. The others represent a millennia-long portraiture tradition by African and African diaspora artists—a twelfth-century bronze Ife portrait head of a ruler, peeking out from behind Officer Moore’s shoulder, begins the lineage. Charles White’s engraving of the abolitionist orator Frederick Douglass, Henry Ossawa Tanner’s reverent oil painting of his father, and Barclay Hendrix’s full-length rendering of a stylish friend are also visible. Moore joins this auspicious community of black artists by including a slice of one of his own works in the back gallery.

The two paintings illustrated here, together with eight other portraits, have been acquired by the University. Some have joined the Art Museum’s collections; in partnership with the Campus Iconography Committee, others have been added to Campus Collections. The works will be on view throughout the Princeton campus this semester; in many cases they will be located at the sites where their subjects have a regular presence.

Mitra Abbaspour
Haskell Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art