Amy Sherald Painted Breonna Taylor for the Cover of Vanity Fair’s September Issue, Guest Edited by Ta-Nehisi Coates
The issue also features photographs of Taylor’s home and family by LaToya Ruby Frazier.
Today, Vanity Fair revealed the cover of its September issue: an elegant portrait of Breonna Taylor, painted by Amy Sherald.
Taylor, who was shot by police officers in her own Louisville, Kentucky home this March, is shown in a swaying, aquamarine dress against a background of the same hue. She stands with her hand on her hip, her eyes fixed back at the viewer.
“She sees you seeing her,” Sherald told Vanity Fair in a behind-the-cover feature. “The hand on the hip is not passive, her gaze is not passive. She looks strong! I wanted this image to stand as a piece of inspiration to keep fighting for justice for her. When I look at the dress, it kind of reminds me of Lady Justice.”
Sherald employed a woman with similar physical features for the portrait, which is just her second commission after her official portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama.
The details are carefully considered. Taylor’s flowing dress was created specially for the portrait by Black designer Jasmine Elder, while a gold cross necklace represents her faith. On the subject’s left hand is the wedding ring with which her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, planned to propose.
“I made this portrait for her family,” said Sherald. “I mean, of course I made it for Vanity Fair, but the whole time I was thinking about her family.”
A representative from Sherald’s gallery, Hauser & Wirth, noted that there are no current exhibition plans for the original painting.
The question of the ethics of using the image of Taylor and other Black victims of police violence, especially in a commercial context, is a fraught one.
“The aestheticization of #BreonnaTaylor is unacceptable,” Studio Museum in Harlem curator Legacy Russell wrote on Twitter the same day the Vanity Fair cover was announced. “It is not radical to make her image decorative. There is a complex art/history re: decorative concealing violence. Are beautiful images dignity—or justice?”
In another tweet, Russell summed up: “We deserve more than a dignity campaign of the decorative!” She noted later that she wasn’t responding to Sherald’s painting specifically, but rather any widely-circulated images that aestheticize Black trauma.
The cover accompanies a feature by Ta-Nehisi Coates—who also guest-edited the issue—made up of texts transcribed from an interview with Taylor’s mother, Tamika Palmer. Photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier illustrated the story with poignant, black-and-white shots of Palmer, Walker, and other figures in Taylor’s life such, as well as pictures of her would-be wedding ring.
Earlier this month, O: The Oprah Magazine also featured a portrait of Taylor painted by 24-year-old self-taught African American artist Alexis Franklin. It was the first time in the publication’s history that Oprah wasn’t featured.
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