The California African American Museum (CAAM) presents an exhibition that examines the life, art, and popularity of Ernie Barnes, who created some of the twentieth century’s most iconic images of African American life.
For fans of 1970s American television, Ernie Barnes’s (1938–2009) painting The Sugar Shack is likely familiar. The 1976 work depicting a dance scene—which was the cover art for Marvin Gaye’s album I Want You—achieved cult status by regularly appearing on the hit sitcom Good Times, inspiring a community of television viewers who discussed it after each episode.
Known for his unique “neo-mannerist” approach of presenting figures through elongated forms, he captured his observations of life growing up in North Carolina, playing professional football in the NFL (1960–1964), and living in Los Angeles. Ernie Barnes: A Retrospective includes examples of his paintings of entertainment and music, and also highlights how Barnes, the official artist of the 1984 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles, extensively represented athletes and sports.
Born July 15, 1938 in Durham, North Carolina during the height of the Jim Crow Era, Ernie Barnes lived in a section of the city called “The Bottom” with his parents and younger brother. Bullied as a child for being shy and sensitive, Barnes found solace in drawing. In his freshman year, a weightlifting coach put Barnes on a fitness program, which taught him effort and discipline. By his senior year at segregated Hillside High School in Durham, Barnes was captain of the football team and state champion in the shot put. He earned a full athletic scholarship to North Carolina College (now North Carolina Central University) where his art instructor, sculptor Ed Wilson, encouraged him to create images from his own life experiences.
In 1960, Barnes was one of thirty African Americans drafted into the National Football League, one of nine players selected that year from a Historically Black College and University. For five seasons, Barnes was an offensive lineman for the New York Titans, San Diego Chargers, and Denver Broncos. In 1965 New York Jets owner Sonny Werblin paid Barnes a season’s salary “to paint” and subsequently sponsored the first Ernie Barnes gallery exhibition. After the success of the show, Barnes retired from football at age twenty-eight and settled in Los Angeles to devote himself to art.
His pride of North Carolina is evident in his artwork of pool halls, barbershops, porch ladies, church, street singers, sandlot games, and other memories of growing up in the South. His commentary on dance, music, sports, women, education, social justice, and everyday life continue to inspire viewers of all ages, races, religions, educational levels, and social statuses.
About the California African American Museum CAAM explores the art, history, and culture of African Americans, with an emphasis on California and the West. Chartered by the State of California in 1977, the Museum began formal operations in 1981 and is a state-supported agency and a Smithsonian Affiliate. In addition to presenting exhibitions and public programs, CAAM houses a permanent collection of more than four thousand works of art, artifacts, and historical documents, and a publicly accessible research library containing more than twenty thousand volumes.