Kerry James Marshall’s Metaphoric ‘Great America’

WASHINGTON, DC—Earlier this year, the National Gallery of Art acquired “Great America” by Kerry James Marshall. The striking, metaphoric image is one of the few contemporary works by an African American artist, and the first by Marshall, in the National Gallery’s collection.

In May, the museum announced the acquisition and described the work thus: “In Great America [Marshall] re-imagines a boat ride through the haunted tunnel of an amusement park as the Middle Passage of slaves from Africa to the New World. What might in other hands be a work of heavy irony becomes instead a delicate interweaving of the histories of painting and race.”

When I saw the painting and its title, the image resonated. Having grown up in Northern California, we often went to Marriott’s Great America amusement park. Marshall manages to convey two disparate messages clearly—the frivolity of a water ride and the brutal history of a nation.

Born in Birmingham, Ala., Marshall grew up in the Watts area of Los Angeles, where he moved in 1963 just two years before the riots occurred. Today, he lives and works in Chicago.

Photos by Arts Observer

“Great America,” 1994 (acrylic and collage on canvas) by Kerry James Marshall

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