Vanity Fair and Vogue
This week, not one, but two major American magazines commissioned three prominent Black artists to paint the cover of their September issue. Vogue chose Kerry James Marshall and Jordan Casteel (both of whom I've written about before) to paint covers inspired by the word "hope." Vanity Fair commissioned Amy Sherald, best known for painting Michelle Obama's official portrait, to paint a posthumous portrait of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old aspiring nurse and EMT who was killed by police this year after they wrongly and forcefully broke into her home.

Both magazines are using their biggest issue of the year to platform Black voices and stories in a time when police are still murdering Black people and fashion media institutions are looking at an uncertain future. Though important, it's a move that feels more than a little opportunistic given everything going on.

"What do you put on the cover of a fashion magazine when the fashion industry is sorting out its cultural relevance and racial justice has rolled to the forefront of an industry that has dragged its feet in making inclusivity an imperative?" asked Pulitzer Prizer winner Robin Givhan in her review of Vogue's covers for the Washington Post.

The answer? Pretty, but rather impotent, images. All to be considered.

In the vast majority of her work, Sherald paints from real-life, taking pictures of her subjects—ordinary Black people—to then paint later. But because of the unique circumstances of this commission, Sherald conscripted a woman with "similar physical attributes" to pose as Taylor, studying the details of her life to create a portrait that felt truthful. If you look closely, you'll see a golden band around Taylor's finger—the engagement ring she was not alive to receive from her boyfriend—a delicate gold chain around her neck representing her faith, the color of her dress reflective of her birthstone.

Sherald is known for her use of muted grey to depict Black skin tones, a nod to the invention of the camera when she says Black families were able to photograph themselves in "the ways they wanted." In an interview with Vanity Fair, she said this portrait of Taylor is a contribution to the "moment and to activism—producing this image keeps Breonna alive forever.”

But there's the rub. There is something that irks me about that language. Though this painting is beautiful and yes, in a way, the memory of Taylor lives on through it, the whole fact of this painting and of it being on the cover of a national magazine is that she is not alive. Her life was brutally ended by Louisville police officers who killed her and who have not been brought to justice. As Legacy Russell of the Studio Museum in Harlem pointed out, the "decorative" quality of the piece obscures the violence that brought this piece into being.

I think the painting illustrates how our clamoring for beauty often steps on the political activism necessary to motivate change and justice. While the portrait is gorgeously rendered by a great painter, its prettiness also implies a worthiness. And all for Vanity Fair.

For Vogue, the vibe was relatively less somber, emphasizing a kind of energetic representation rather than a dignified one. On her cover, Casteel painted designer and activist Aurora James, creator of the 15 Percent Pledge which asks brands to pledge 15 percent of their shelf space to Black-owned businesses. James is depicted against a cityscape, swathed in a light blue dress by Pyer Moss, posing elegantly—yet powerfully—on a wooden stool. Lilies and vases are at her feet. This cover comes as Vogue announces their commitment to the 15 Percent Pledge, with editor-in-chief Anna Wintour saying they "will make every effort" to ensure that at least 15 percent of their freelancers are Black.

Here, again, I find my brain going back to Givhan, who called Wintour's announcement paired with this cover image "a visual news release — an artful act of public relations." Oof. But she's not wrong. While I find Casteel's work arresting—the sumptuousness of the fabric, the red brick and greenery of the city, the beautiful objects cast like devotion objects at James's feet—there's hollowness to it. Perhaps it was the choice in subject or my increasing impatience with representational politics. But maybe I was wrong to expect profundity from a Vogue magazine cover anyway.

In contrast, Marshall was the only painter of the three to not depict a real person, as is a general custom in his own practice. Instead he painted a Black woman in an interior space, with the city just visible in the background. She's wearing a ball gown from Virgil Abloh's Off-White label, leaning against the wall and looking away from the viewer.

Her skin is painted a deep and nuanced shade of black that is characteristic of Marshall's work. He achieves this shade using carbon black, iron oxide black, and ivory black mixed with cobalt blue, chrome green, carbazole dioxazine violet, yellow ochre, and raw sienna. The literal rainbow! Reminding us that Blackness is not just Black, but a multi-dimensional state of being.

“If you’re going to be painting a face as black as I’m painting them, they can’t just be a cipher, like a black hole. They have to be mysterious but available,” he told Vogue in an interview about the piece. “If you say, ‘Black is beautiful,’ you have to show it. And what I’m doing is showing it at the extreme. Yes, it is black—very black—and it is very beautiful.” Mysterious but available. The essence of a real cover star.