We Wear the Mask presents paintings by Curtis Barnes Sr. in New York for the first time. Barnes (1935-2019) spent most of his life as a key figure in the artistic community of Dayton, Ohio, producing a rich body of work that drew on the liberatory frameworks of post-colonial thinkers, free improvisation of jazz music, and enduring friendships and mentorships.
Taking its title from an 1895 poem of the same name by Paul Lawrence Dunbar, We Wear the Mask explores the interplay between face and mask in Barnes’ works. For Barnes, the mask as ritual object, image, and emblem of African culture became an effective expression of the African American spirit. By painting African masks into his portraits, Barnes reconnected the masks with the cultural history of Black faces, reclaiming control over representations of his culture and experience. As the artist expressed it, with the mask he could “hold on to the Africanness of the image.”
Comprising a selection of Barnes’ portraits and self-studies, We Wear the Mask introduces Barnes as an experimental colorist admired by his students for limited yet powerful palettes. The yellows, blues, and reds in his subjects’ faces speak to the lyricism and freewheeling embrace of abstraction found in Barnes’ work. His mask-like portraits reveal subjects close to the artist who he represented vulnerably and honestly. In these paintings, Barnes opens our eyes to the structures that we find ourselves in, freeing ourselves from the masks behind which we dream, cry and smile.
WE WEAR THE MASK THAT GRINS AND LIES, IT HIDES OUR CHEEKS AND SHADES OUR EYES,— THIS DEBT WE PAY TO HUMAN GUILE; WITH TORN AND BLEEDING HEARTS WE SMILE, AND MOUTH WITH MYRIAD SUBTLETIES. WHY SHOULD THE WORLD BE OVER-WISE, IN COUNTING ALL OUR TEARS AND SIGHS? NAY, LET THEM ONLY SEE US, WHILE WE WEAR THE MASK.
We Wear the Mask by Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906)
“Everything I do is an attempt to find self. I haven’t found self yet. That’s why I‘m still working.”
Curtis Barnes Sr., 2010
A Subjective View