This Amazing Art Shows Black Life In A New Light

Ernie Barnes holding In Remembrance painting
Akilah Wise
June 11, 2021

We all know this painting by Ernie Barnes, the NFL football player who went on to become a painter. Titled “Sugar Shack,” it was the cover of Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You” album and appeared in the closing credits of the sitcom “Good Times.”

But in January 2019, the North Carolina Museum of History brought Barnes’ paintings to life for their 18th annual African-American Cultural Celebration!

The sold-out event, “The Celebration of Life Inspired by Ernie Barnes,” featured North Carolina dance companies that used Barnes’ paintings to inspire their choreography.

Nicole Oxendine of Durham’s Empower Dance Studio transformed the painting into a dance called “At the Shack.” Even more awesome: the dance was set to Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You” and “Get It Up,” songs from the album that feature the painting!

Known as “Big Rembrandt” by his teammates, Ernie Barnes was the first professional American athlete to become a well-recognized painter. 

And you can’t ignore Ernie Barnes paintings when you see them, known for their elongated style, dynamic movement, and themes around the Black Southern experience. In fact, he based “The Sugar Shack” on the dances at the Durham Armory that he saw while growing up.

“[Ernie Barnes] was a remarkable human being who defied odds and became a renowned artist. This exhibit is an amazing opportunity for the state of North Carolina. It’s a chance for visitors to see a number of Ernie’s works that he painted throughout his life and see the impact that the state had on him and his career,” said exhibit curator Katie Edwards.

“The Celebration of Life Inspired by Ernie Barnes” was an incredible cultural event that connected Black art forms – painting and dance – across time. 

It gave all of us across generations the chance to celebrate the work of Ernie Barnes, one of the greatest painters of our time, in a new and special way. And through his timeless paintings, we can always celebrate being Black.

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