With Halo, Greenfield brings the stories of Black folk-saints, martyrs, freedom-fighters, survivors, magicians, and visionaries back into view. Many of the figures are from the 1400-1800s, a timeframe that corresponds with Europeans beginning to use racial distinction as a tool to justify slavery. Greenfield honors their simultaneously disturbing and astounding lives by bestowing them with halos, traditionally seen as reverential symbols of adoration and respect. “I am reimagining what a saint is,” Greenfield says. “Maybe in studying their stories, they can inform us on better ways to live.”
Halo is a rich representation of the complexities of the historical Black identity. The figures in the paintings emerge from a variety of geographic locations, time periods, stages of life and levels of freedom - each representing a person who was nearly blotted out from written history despite their incredible feats of attributed miracles and accomplishments.
This striking new series evolved as a natural progression from Greenfield’s previous exhibition, Black Madonna, which re-imagined the unique religious icons of a black Virgin Mary and baby Jesus in ways that spoke to the moment. They made their sensational debut at the gallery in the fall of 2020. Halo continues in the Byzantine style of the Black Madonna icons, presenting us with fascinating historical figures, rendered in rich detail and set in circular tondo’s. The lustrous gold leaf backgrounds, like the halos, seek to elevate the figures to a more hallowed stature.
Throughout his career, Greenfield's work has dealt with elucidating the African American experience - examining stereotypes and other acts of oppression, often by illuminating the most oppressive of acts - those of omission. Halo presents us with powerful images of figures and events neglected by history. Greenfield's images like those of Rebecca Cox Jackson, Solitude of Guadalupe and Zumbi dos Palmares, compel us to learn their stories.
Of the subjects in this series, Zumbi dos Palmares (1655 – 1695) is perhaps one of the best known. Zumbi was a pioneering Afro-Brazilian resistance leader and today a symbol of liberation from Brazil’s Portuguese colonists. Thought to be a descendent of central African royalty, he became a military leader to a ‘quilombo,’ or self-sustaining community of escaped slaves referred to as ‘Maroons.’
This exhibition feels uncannily destined for this moment. It opens at a time of unprecedented upheaval, where continuing racial inequities, and a global pandemic, have challenged our institutions, and our perceptions of them, to the core. With Halo, Mark Steven Greenfield brings an important and timely perspective to the discussion.