Elizabeth Colomba’s “157 Years of Juneteenth”

Sunday, June 19th, will mark a hundred and fifty-seven years since the U.S. Army General Gordon Granger announced to the people of Galveston, Texas, that slavery was over. Granger’s announcement came in 1865, more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation. And it is in that delay, in the “vast chasm between the concept of freedom inscribed on paper and the reality of freedom in our lives,” the New Yorker staff writer Jelani Cobb has written, that the true meaning of Juneteenth was and continues to be found. “In that regard,” Cobb added, “Juneteenth exists as a counterpoint to the Fourth of July; the latter heralds the arrival of American ideals, the former stresses just how hard it has been to live up to them.” We talked to the artist Elizabeth Colomba about what inspired her first cover for the magazine.

You knew early on that you wanted to be a painter. Who have been your greatest influences?

It all started with my mother. My mom was always making things: knitting, sewing, and building. She encouraged my artistic talent, and taught me to be inquisitive and observant. The paintings of Vermeer, Velázquez, Caravaggio, and Sargent mesmerize me. I am also influenced by the film director Euzhan Palcy and the writers Aimé Césaire, Joseph Zobel, and Victor Hugo, for their mastery of storytelling.

Your family has roots in Martinique, you grew up outside of Paris, and you’re now settled in New York. How do these places affect your work?

I live in Harlem, and I find inspiration in a community which is similar in some ways to my Martinican background and my European upbringing. Historical Haarlem, a Dutch settlement, and today’s Harlem, buzzing with energy and Blackness, both infuse my work visually and intellectually.

Your paintings and watercolors are often inspired by historical material. What interests you about the past?

One of the roles of portraiture is to anchor you in history. There’s something glorious about being immortalized via this medium, which explains all the portraits of aristocrats, royal families, or landowners. A portrait was and is an acknowledgment of your importance and of your active participation in building a history, a country, and a past.

Yet Black figures aren’t much documented in paint. What I like to do is to insert Black bodies into historically white spaces and thus into the canon of painting. I want to create images that challenge our learned perceptions and unconscious reactions, and therefore help us reëvaluate what we know.

You’ve incorporated traditional elements of Juneteenth celebrations, such as a flower-decked horse-drawn buggy, into this image. What did you learn in the course of creating this cover?

I’ve learned that Juneteenth is considered the longest-running African-American holiday. People celebrated by wearing their best clothes and gathering around large meals. These words from the historian Mitch Kachun resonated with me: “Celebrations of the end of slavery should have three goals: to celebrate, to educate, and to agitate.”

You painted this in watercolor, a delicate medium, at an unusually large scale, which must have required a great deal of patience. Do you think that having to slow down forces insight into your subjects?

Well, if you think this is large, you should see the other ones! Watercolor is a challenging medium, and the larger one goes the trickier it gets. I equate the process with meditation. With watercolor, distraction is not an option—you have to be present. Whether I’m working with watercolor or with oil paint—where I toil over the details—I have to sit with my subject for a long time. I learn about them, get to know them. I think of this labor as a way of honoring my ancestors and the way they ground away. It anchors the idea that nothing comes easy. And, perhaps, that the reward is deserved.

For more covers featuring portraits of Black Americans:

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