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“AVA,” the striking portrait of director Ava DuVernay that was unveiled today by The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, will be viewable as part of its upcoming Portrait of a Nation: 2022 Honorees exhibition opening Nov. 10.
Commissioned along with six other works as part of this year’s class of Portrait of a Nation Award honorees, the piece hails from Kenturah Davis, a California-based artist whose depiction of DuVernay through her stamping technique honors the director’s interest in moving images and writing.
“I am overjoyed to be chosen as a Portrait of a Nation honoree by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery,” DuVernay says. “To encounter my likeness in those hallowed halls as envisioned by the magnificent Kenturah Davis is a dream that I never knew to dream. A pride that I cannot easily convey but that is deeply and humbly felt.”
In an interview discussing her approach to the piece — an undertaking that involved Davis thinking about writing and movement as part of the visual process — the artist explains that while she understands portraits as work that “references the human figure,” for her it’s about a larger context and “not just the physical qualities.”
“Making a portrait by writing and having that writing saying that something about the nature of that person or of a human encounter deepens the process of making a portrait,” she says. “The quality of the written line is no different than the quality of a drawn one, except with a written line we’ve assigned meaning to a series of marks.”
“Kenturah also beautifully creates a motion effect in her portrait that feels like a recognition of the motion pictures Ava wonderfully creates,” Rhea L. Combs, director of curatorial affairs at the National Portrait Gallery, said of Davis’ piece. “The blurred effect of the portrait makes us have to slow down and look carefully at the work. In that sense, the portrait feels extremely intimate.”
Davis, who in the above look at her artistic process states she’s “thrilled and honored” to have been able to draw the artist and storyteller, also shares that capturing DuVernay through portraiture is particularly special because “she really values sisterhood” and “camaraderie with other Black women.”
“My goal was to make a dynamic image, and Ava is a dynamic person,” Davis says. “I hope that they recognize that.”
It was also a perfect match for Combs who called the relationship “very exciting” as “they both choose to center women in much of their work” and “complicate the ways in which we understand people through their careful use of language.”
DuVernay is one of seven among the 2022 class of Portrait of a Nation honorees, which also includes chef and humanitarian José Andrés, music mogul Clive Davis, sports legends Serena Williams and Venus Williams, leading public health expert Anthony S. Fauci, M.D., and Children’s Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman.
Other artists include Kadir Nelson, who did an oil-on-linen painting of Andrés; David Hockney, who delivers a rare commission with his acrylic-on-canvas; Hugo Crosthwaite, whose stop-motion drawing animation and suite of 19 drawings on paper celebrates Fauci; Toyin Ojih Odutola and Robert Pruitt, whose works are individual portraits of the Williams sisters; and Ruven Afanador, who produced a black-and-white photograph of Edelman.
The annual exhibit, which has featured a different set of commissioned portraits each year since its inception in 2015, features work by highly acclaimed contemporary artists whose subjects “have made transformative contributions to the United States and its people across all fields of endeavor,” according to the museum.
“The National Portrait Gallery is a place where art, history and biography align. The ‘Portrait of a Nation’ exhibition highlights individuals who have made an exemplary impact and features people from a range of backgrounds — the arts, science, sports and human rights,” Combs told The Hollywood Reporter. “Kenturah’s use of text and Ava’s commitment to visual storytelling are natural alliances that further the potential and power of portraiture. I am thrilled to have this work by an incredible talent in our permanent collection.”
The exhibition is curated by Combs in collaboration with Taína Caragol, curator of painting, sculpture and Latinx art and history, and Leslie Ureña, curator of photographs. The seven new works, including Davis and DuVernay’s, will be added to the National Portrait Gallery’s collection of over 23,000 objects and will be on view with free admission through Oct. 22, 2023.
This year’s Portrait of a Nation honorees will be presented with their awards at the ticketed Portrait of a Nation Gala on Nov. 12.
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