African-american music appreciation month: Ernie Barnes

Ernie Barnes  from

Ernie Barnes from

It’s still African-American Music Appreciation Month and we want to take the time to celebrate Ernie Barnes, an artist whose work illustrates perfectly how all areas of art interconnects. Barnes' art journey started with internal exploration. About his college instructor who initiated him to the art world he said "He made me conscious of the fact that the artist who is useful to America is one who studies his own life and records it through the medium of art, manners and customs of his own experiences.” Indeed, how can we even call it art if we cannot see ourselves in it or relate to it? 

What is especially fascinating about Ernie Barnes, additionally to the fact that he was an African-American pioneer artist, is the way he was intentional in incorporating elements of the black culture and identity in his artwork. After he asked where he could find "paintings by Negro artists" during a college art field trip to a segregated museum and was answered "Your people don't express themselves that way" by the docent, Barnes could clearly see what was going on and made it his mission to tell the stories of his people. He went back to that same museum 23 years later for a solo exhibition.

Homecoming  from .

Homecoming from


Barnes' artwork has certainly inspired and influenced many! With his precise brush Barnes knew how to capture, understand and illustrate profound human experiences. His art pieces are populated with the closed eyes of his subjects, which represent how he thought we are blinded by judgments and experiences that keep us from really knowing and understanding each other. And so, he believed that when we are unable to dive into the depths of another human being and actually see what they have to offer, it’s because we're just looking at them with closed eyes. 

His exploration of the Jewish community made him realize how little black people knew about their own culture. He noticed that black people only started to appreciate themselves and find value in their culture when the phrase “Black is beautiful” became a trend. Seeing how Jewish customs were documented because they were deeply ingrained in that community forced him to dive into his own experience as a black boy and look at the way he was (not) taught to experience his culture. When he heard the phrase “I’m Black and I’m proud”, he wanted to know “Proud of what?” And this is what gave life to his The Beauty of The Ghetto series. 

The Sugar Shack  from .

The Sugar Shack from

Dance Hall from .

Dance Hall from

Ernie Barnes’ career as a professional football player also influenced his artwork. Regarding his art for the football league, the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee president said that, Barnes, in his art  “captured the essence of the Olympics" and "portray the city's ethnic diversity, the power and emotion of sports competition, the singleness of purpose and hopes that go into the making of athletes the world over." He was named the Sports Artist of the 1984 Olympic Games by the same committee and the first Sports Artist of the Year by the United States Sports Academy in 1985. 

Although Barnes was not a musician, his paintings were used as the album covers of several artists; that was his way to bring part of the black experience to the musical world. He is best remembered for his cover painting on Marvin Gaye’s I Want You album. There is still so much more to say about Ernie Barnes and one blog post is certainly not enough. One thing we know for sure is that we are obsessed with how Barnes made sure he incorporated his black culture and identity in everything he did! He is a real example of what bringing one's whole self to the table means. 

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