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Artist Mario Moore's work seeks to enshrine Black Americans' presence


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: In art history, we are familiar with portraits of royalty and the powerful, the rich and famous.

A young Detroit artist is part of rethinking of who deserves a place in the picture.

Jeffrey Brown reports for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: A young man in a painting titled Light on Brother, a woman in a study in black called That Beautiful Color, a couple outside on a fearful night, The American Dream, portraits of family, friends, acquaintances, and himself by 33-year-old artist Mario Moore.

Mario Moore, Artist: I want you to almost feel like the person is standing before you, right?

Jeffrey Brown: The presence.

Mario Moore: The presence of that individual that captures you to stop and look, because that's really what painting is about. It's like, how do you get somebody to stop for a really, really long time and stare at this thing that I made?


Jeffrey Brown: Thirty-two of Moore's paintings are now on view in an exhibition at Detroit's Charles Wright Museum of African American History.

It's called Enshrined: Presence and Preservation.

Mario Moore: One thing that I'm always interested in is, what are we going to look back to as time moves forward? How do I make a claim to say that I was here and these people were here, when we look back through art history?

This is also the family church right here, the church that we go to.

Jeffrey Brown: Moore, a Detroit native and graduate of its College for Creative Studies, as well as Yale's master of fine arts program, has been around art all his life. His father worked as a security guard at the Detroit Institute of Arts, and his mother is an artist.

Mario Moore: It wasn't just my mom. It was also her friends and her colleagues and the work that they were making, very different kinds of artists.

So I was going into studios, smelling all the paint, sniffing all the stuff I shouldn't have sniffed.

Jeffrey Brown: Even as a little kid.


Mario Moore: Yes, even as a little kid.

Jeffrey Brown: Today, he works in a studio in an innovative housing development called True North, where he's preparing for a gallery show opening this fall in New Orleans.

There's a Civil War theme, but, as always, he focuses on the individual, especially the individual Black man or woman, within a larger present and past.

Mario Moore: When I was younger and I would go into museums, and I would see these incredible paintings, these European paintings, I never thought about the individuals as white. I just thought about them as humanity. It's this human story. It might be from the Bible. It might be something mythical.

But race never came into my mind until I got older. And then I started to see a missing link. Like, well, if this is supposed to be a broad human story, where are -- where is everybody else?

Jeffrey Brown: While on a fellowship at Princeton, Moore sought out and then painted workers who make the university run behind the scenes, giving them a front-and-center presence.

He's also addressed the trauma of violence against young Black men and women, as in this painting:, a kind of self-portrait in parts.

Mario Moore: I had an older sister. I used to play with her dolls. And then you got the little cutouts and you could put clothes on them.

Jeffrey Brown: Right.

Mario Moore: And so you can kind of switch it up. But, for me, it was a way to talk about how these specific items and this individual are all seen in different ways.

But then, collectively, when they're put together with the Black male body, does that hoodie change? Now does that hoodie mean something else, right? Is it now a threat, instead of a comfort?

Jeffrey Brown: In some cases, it's his own family history being explored, within the larger context of his city.

Mario Moore: This is those areas where it's a lot of empty space. It's a lot of urban wilderness.

Jeffrey Brown: Moore took us to the bricked-up site on a mostly abandoned block where his great-grandfather once had a diner.

Mario Moore: My grandma would talk about people entering. And there'd be windows, so you can look out. So I can only imagine that this would be the entrance.

This is my grandmother here.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Mario Moore: That's her sister. That's my grandfather in the background.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Working from old photographs, he pieced together the look and feel of the place to make this painting.

Mario Moore: It became a real kind of a personal investigation into what was here and was here through my family, and then also to talk about this idea of ownership in Black-owned businesses, and what's happening today with that same kind of concept.

Jeffrey Brown: Black-owned businesses in this era lost because of changes in the city up to today.

Mario Moore: Exactly.

Jeffrey Brown: Up to today.

Mario Moore: Up to today, yes.

And, today, now it's a different situation, dealing with some similarities, but specifically dealing with COVID, right, that has made something specific and hard to deal with for all businesses, but has been harder on small Black-owned businesses.

Jeffrey Brown: In 2017, doctors found a tumor on Moore's brain. The surgery, a successful one, became another subject for his art, as did the forced rest and need to slow down for his physical and mental health.

Important subjects, all. But for the artist himself, it's the very act of painting that is most important.

Mario Moore: I'm a painter.


Mario Moore: And I think this gets lost on a lot of people because we live in this digital world, right?

So, a lot of the work that people are seeing, they're seeing it through a screen. They're seeing an image, and not necessarily a painting. So, when I'm thinking about Kerry James Marshall, when I'm thinking about Diego Velazquez, who I think is the greatest painter in history, it's the way that he handles the material of paint.

There's all this magic that's happening in the way that it's made. And I'm so excited about that same thing. It's like, yes, I want to talk about these stories, right? So, painting, like, takes you on that journey.

Jeffrey Brown: Presence and preservation through the application of paint on canvas.

Mario Moore's exhibition runs through September 19, before traveling to Los Angeles.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at the Charles Wright Museum of African American history in Detroit.

Judy Woodruff: What a wonderful piece.

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