Whitehot Magazine

“The Sugar Shack by Ernie Barnes” or “Strange Consequences of Extraordinary Serendipities” with Writings by Archie Shepp (Part One)

 Ernie Barnes, The Sugar Shack, 1976, acrylic on canvas, Collection of William O. Perkins III and Lara K. Perkins, © Ernie Barnes Family Trust


By LARA PAN April 15, 2024

Ernie Barnes, born in segregated Durham, North Carolina in 1938, was an American painter, actor, and football player. Recently, by a stroke of serendipity, documentation related to Ernie Barnes found its way to my writing desk — thereby sparking a significant turn in my work.

His iconic painting The Sugar Shack (1976) has left an indelible mark on cultural history. The painting, inspired by Barnes’ experience of sneaking into the Durham Armory dance hall as a teen, appeared on the cover of Marvin Gaye’s 1976 album I Want You, and in the 1970s television show Good Times. Barnes is celebrated for his unique artistic style and his ability to capture the African American experience. My research delves into the ideas that orbit his artistic oeuvre and explores the broader implications of shared memories and cultural intersections.

It all began with a call from the Blanton Museum press department with a conversation that propelled my research into the realm of Ernie Barnes and the principles that made up his artistic practice.

The Sugar Shack by Ernie Barnes is currently on loan at the Blanton Museum in Austin, captivating the entire Texas population and a broader audience until the end of November 2024. This remarkable opportunity has been made possible by a dynamic young collector-couple from Houston, William O. Perkins III and Lara K. Perkins. Their record-breaking purchase of this iconic testimony to African American culture exemplifies the profound influence Barnes’s work can wield, especially resonating with younger generations.

Installation view, the Blanton Museum

Being intrigued to learn more about these Houston collectors I discovered an interesting connection. Besides the fact that William O. Perkins’s wife shares the same name as me, another fascinating detail emerged. He proposed to her in one of my cherished childhood retreats — the picturesque city of Dubrovnik in Croatia, also known as Ragusa. This coastal city holds a special place in my heart, as I spent entire summer holidays there during my youth.

Another fascinating coincidence is that William O. Perkins and I share a common passion for card games, particularly poker. One might wonder how this connects to Ernie Barnes, but culturally, it holds significant relevance. Barnes’s artistic practice, much like the game of poker itself, knows no cultural bounds. It has the power to bring together individuals from diverse cultural backgrounds, religions, and races.

Furthermore, poker, initially a game played along the Mississippi River in the early 19th century by traders and sailors has evolved into an integral part of Americana — a cultural trajectory like that of jazz and blues music, which originated in the African American communities of New Orleans, Louisiana in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and has since become a major form of expression in traditional and popular music. Thus, it is no surprise to learn that Barnes drew inspiration from the sports scene, jazz, blues dance halls, and popular culture as well. And then maybe the common thread between poker and Barnes’s work, as spaces of shared understanding and universal accessibility for everyone, becomes deeply resonant. Whether on the dance floor, on the playing field, or at a poker table, we stand as equals, transcending differences and embracing a common experience.

Installation view, Ernie Barnes at the Blanton Museum of Art

In this initial essay segment, the intention is not to defer the discussion of his artistic techniques, brushstrokes, and aesthetics. This emphasis is especially significant because it ensures the inclusion of a broad and diverse audience, highlighting the accessibility of Barnes’s cultural narrative. Instead, the focus becomes the profound legacy left by Barnes and his unique approach to accentuating American culture. Moreover, the essay aims to explore how Barnes sourced and celebrated his African American heritage during challenging times, drawing inspiration from the vibrant milieu of blues and jazz dancehalls, as well as integrating elements from sports, film, and music. In this part I chose to conduct interviews and pose inquiries about Ernie Barnes’s legacy to our present historical moment, engaging with several iconic figures—one from the music world and the other from the art world. All of them, whether directly or indirectly, share a connection with the realm of Ernie Barnes.

I was lucky enough to have an interaction with iconic musician Archie Shepp and his close friend, an important artist figure in the Belgian art scene Jean-Pierre Muller, a jazz musician himself. While Archie reflected on Ernie Barnes’ legacy in text form, Jean Pierre Muller answered one of my questions regarding collective identity.

One connection between Sheep and Barnes lies in their shared commitment to portraying authentic aspects of Black culture. Sheep’s avant-garde jazz compositions often incorporated elements of African and African American musical traditions, fostering a sense of cultural continuity and pride. His work, like Barnes’s, has (and continues to) contributed to the broader cultural landscape by challenging norms and promoting a deeper understanding of Black experiences.

LP: Share insights on the tangible and intangible connections you can draw from Ernie Barnes themes. From your unique perspective, how do you interpret Ernie Barnes and his work?

JPM: “As a celebration of celebrations. Let me explain. Joy is a serious matter - we, artists of the Lowlands, have known this for a long time. Belgium is indeed the land of Van Eyck, James Ensor, Hergé, Magritte or Broodthaers. Brueghel would paint festive village parties, like Barnes would do house parties, where you could feel the tragic beauty of joy - joy could be interrupted any minute by violence, rape, and murder (ever heard of the Spanish Fury in the XVIth Century?) Or take Rubens, painter, and diplomat, whose celebrations of life all bear the conscience of tragedy. Or even Beethoven – Ludwig van Beethoven, not von Beethoven, that’s what betrays his Flemish origins. Bear in mind what many jazz musicians were claiming: Beethoven was black! So, obviously, I see a direct link from the Flemish Renaissance to the Harlem Renaissance, and by extension to all the fabulous offerings from the Afro-American cultural heritage. Ernie Barnes and Nile Rodgers have extended the link to today...

It can take a long time to notice (well, it was my case it did), but Ernie Barnes paints all his subjects with closed eyes. This creates a poignant connection to the inner world of every individual, the world of traumas and the world of dreams, secrets, and memories, of spirituality and desire. This is the kind of depth you can find in Roger van der Weyden or Hugo van der Goes – two of my favorite Flemish primitives…

Archie Shepp and Jean Pierre Muller

Archie Shepp for Whitehot Magazine:

“In The Sugar Shack, Ernie Barnes paints a scene that belongs as much to the American collective imagination as to a social reality, black bodies happy and free in dance. As James Baldwin pointed out, the shameful representation of the black body by its oppressors reflects a nightmare, a white nightmare. It points to a deep sense of guilt, to the failure of the private life, and the fear of the intimate self that is integral to white society.

Ernie Barnes turns this nightmare upside down, presenting us with a joyous, luminous - and subversive - vision. The dancers seem to be moving on the canvas, their vital energy made visible, every one of them imprinted by the rhythm of the music in a unique fashion, muscles tense and powerful.

There is a lone man who is not taking part in the dancing, he seems too tired for it. I suppose you could interpret his presence in several ways. To me, it recalls the social reality of life outside the dancing hall, harassing work, and oppression. The man seems to be happy amongst the dancers, though. There is freedom there also: to each his or her way.

The scene hearkens back to the time of slavery when African Americans preserved an area of freedom through dance and music. It reveals the thread running from the ecstatic dances of the slaves in the forests celebrating their religion in protest, to the swing dancers of the 20’s and 30’s, from Pattin’ Juba to the dance halls of the rhythm and blues. Nothing is less submissive than these bodies, their dance heralds the revolution to come, as did the dances of the slaves, and the choreographies of hip-hop.”

Archie Sheep and Ernie Barnes, although operating in different artistic realms, both made significant contributions to the rich tapestry of Black cultural heritage. While Sheep is renowned for his groundbreaking work in avant-garde jazz, particularly during the 1960s, Barnes achieved acclaim as a visual artist, capturing the essence of African American life.

In part 2, I will share more extraordinary serendipities related to Ernie Barnes’ legacy and his art with new surprise guests... More to come in June. WM


Lara Pan

Lara Pan is an independent curator,writer and researcher based in New York. Her research focuses on the intersection between art, science, technology and paranormal phenomena.

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