Ernie Barnes was an American painter, actor, and football player best known for his depictions of figures in motion. His compositions, often filled with crowds of people, were intended to promote racial harmony by showing people from different backgrounds standing side-by-side. “I am bound by the strongest ties with the organic life of all people,” the artist has said. “Being an artist has created in me the desire to continually affirm beauty.”
Barnes is commonly associated with the painting ‘The Sugar Shack’, inspired by the popular sitcom Good Times, which depicts a crowd of people dancing in a jazz club, their bodies twisting and serpentine. Born on July 15, 1938 in Durham, NC, Barnes began to experiment with painting while studying at North Carolina College. After playing in the National Football League for five years, the artist was hired as the official artist of the New York Jets. Barnes’s work has appeared on the covers of several albums, including BB King's Making Love is Good For You and Marvin Gaye’s I Want You. A distinct feature in Barnes' work is the closed eyes of his subjects. "It was in 1971 when I conceived the idea of The Beauty of the Ghetto as an exhibition. And I showed it to some people who were Black to get a reaction. And from one (person) it was very negative. And when I began to express my points of view (to this) professional man, he resisted the notion. And as a result of his comments and his attitude I began to see…how blind we are to one another's humanity. Blinded by a lot of things that have, perhaps, initiated feelings in that light. We don't see into the depths of our interconnection. The gifts, the strength and potential within other human beings. We stop at color quite often. We have to be aware of who we are in order to have the capacity to like others. But when you cannot visualize the offerings of another human being you're obviously not looking at the human being with open eyes. We look upon each other and decide immediately: This person is black, so he must be... This person lives in poverty, so he must be..."
Barnes died on April 27, 2009 in Los Angeles, CA. His work is currently held in the collections of the American Sport Art Museum and Archives in Daphne, the Seattle Art Museum, and African American Museum in Philadelphia.
Football Players, 1966, oil on canvas, 36 x 40 inches
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