Jeffrey Hargrave: Black Olympia: New York, NY


Jeffrey Hargrave: Black Olympia

October 18 - November 15, 2023 (extended)

251 West 19th Street, New York, NY

Opening Reception: October 18, 6 – 8 pm


Ethan Cohen Gallery is pleased to present Black Olympia, Jeffrey Hargrave's fifth solo exhibition with the gallery.


With a profoundly resonant intentionality Jeffrey Hargrave selects one of Western culture's most celebrated art historical images to explore, subvert, and resurrect. His variations on the theme of Manet's 'Olympia' aim to rediscover the renowned painting as an expression of an imaginary parallel tradition, an equivalent black canon of art history. His Olympia's are luxuriant sumptuous black women posing precisely as Manet's prototype, re-interpreted through Hargraves' transformative vision, pampered, glowing, and finally displayed in the forefront of cultural consciousness, their own and ours. Hargrave's gay African-American sensibility consciously endows the black Olympia with the lush colors and amplified glamor worthy of a divinity ensconced in ceremonial luxury.


The artist's Olympia series embodies his views that women led on many fronts of the African-American struggle from Harriet Tubman to Rosa Parks to Angela Davis and Beyonce in the present. He identifies the women of his family as part of the heroic narrative. His sister who nurtured the famous NFL star, Javon Hargrave, Jeffrey's nephew. His mother who raised Jeffrey from a hardscrabble childhood to pride and achievement as an artist. His sister who became pregnant at 19, attended nursing school and became the head nurse at a large institution. Against this background of overcoming hardship, Hargrave posits images of black women surrounded by symbols of adversity and redemption. He repositions his Olympia's as figures of royal splendor reoccupying the rightful place of apotheosis they held before slavery. And to some degree, he avows, the works are partial self-portraits. They are materializations of his own feminine side, fantasies and realizations.


Hargrave's tableaus reverberate with complexity and multi-layered clues. Spiritual, political, historical, they educate the viewer stealthily. Where the painting features African sculptures, we are reminded that Picasso drew inspiration from them and thus was born modern art. In Hargrave's 'Adoration of Black Olympia', we see mysterious hanging cocoa fruits in the background, shipped along with slave cargo at the time and considered of comparable value. Angels or cherubs often hover in sight, citing Renaissance-era religiosity and suggesting that Black Olympia's too have a place in heaven. And indeed the artist has envisioned that heaven, along with the mortal ordeals that precede it and the transfiguration that follows. Hargrave's work shows us that literal transfiguration, the deification through art that only the artist can offer, as Manet did in the Western canon, and Hargrave by correcting and enriching the tradition.