Past meets present
Naudline Pierre’s painting marks the first joint acquisition for two AGO curatorial departments.
Naudline Pierre. Written in the Sky, 2022. Oil, enamel, and oil stick on panel, Overall: 304.8 × 304.8 × 4.4 cm. Art Gallery of Ontario. Purchase, with funds from the Friends of Global Africa & the Diaspora, and an anonymous donor to the European Art Department, 2022. © Naudline Pierre, 2023. Courtesy the artist and James Cohan, New York. 2022/7088.
The AGO’s European Art Galleries are no stranger to grand depictions of biblical stories. Filled with works spanning the 1000s to 1900s, there’s one painting currently on view that seems steps outside the time period of the surrounding art. 10 ft. tall and wide and painted with vivid hues of red and pink, one may wonder how the work of Naudline Pierre, a Brooklyn-based contemporary painter, ended up beside Jacopo Tintoretto’s depiction of Jesus Washing His Disciple’s Feet (1550).
Located on Level 1 of the AGO in the Reuben Wells Leonard Rotunda (gallery 115), Pierre’s Written in the Sky (2022) explores how the past can inform imaginings of future worlds. Adapting iconography from historical European art to create a portrayal of Black women’s agency, this work is the first joint acquisition between the AGO’s Arts of Global Africa Diaspora and European Art curatorial departments, led by Julie Crooks, AGO Curator, Arts of Global Africa and Diaspora and Caroline Shields, AGO Curator, European Art. A perhaps unexpected cross-department collaboration, Written in the Sky is a poignant example of the relationship between the art of the past and the present.
Written in the Sky features powerful re-imaginings of religious motifs: Pierre puts her own spin on seraphs, adding box braids and Afros to these creatures. Flames and clouds fill her vibrant, yet celestial re-interpretation of a triptych, a three-panel artwork traditionally used in European art for altar painting. The protagonist, a re-occurring central figure in much of Pierre’s work, stands proudly in the centre panel, arms outstretched. Similar to religious European art, a halo surrounds the protagonist’s head. However, unlike the soft yellow hue seen in most Western religious iconography, this halo is a starburst, highlighting the figure’s power and transcendental nature, further emphasized by how the protagonist is lifted into the sky by two of Pierre’s beings. As you walk around to the back of the triptych, Black flames engulf more of Pierre’s fantastical beings and a winged figure.
Installation view, Naudline Pierre, Written in the Sky (detail), 2022. Oil, enamel, and oil stick on panel, Overall: 304.8 × 304.8 × 4.4 cm. Art Gallery of Ontario. Purchase, with funds from the Friends of Global Africa & the Diaspora, and an anonymous donor to the European Art Department, 2022. © Naudline Pierre, 2023. Courtesy the artist and James Cohan, New York. Photo AGO. 2022/7088.
Using historical European art motifs and art forms, Pierre creates an alternative universe where traditional narratives can be reimagined. Written in the Sky is shown at the AGO in conversation with depictions of the biblical creation story of Eve tempted by the serpent to eat the forbidden fruit, leading to the fall of mankind. Facing the triptych are historical prints depicting Eve convinced by the serpent to take the fruit. In Written in the Sky, Pierre’s protagonist triumphantly grabs the serpent instead in an act of self-reclamation. Directly across the protagonist sits Auguste Rodin’s sculpture Eve (1883), which poses her as covering her face and body in shame, directly contrasting Pierre’s protagonist. Turning this symbol of shame into a story of power and self-reclamation, Pierre uses flame and serpent iconography to represent endurance, positive change and transformation.
Primarily a painter, Pierre's work centres on an alternative universe filled with characters “that often interact with each other in tender ways.” Pierre also draws inspiration from painters Francisco Goya, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, and El Greco, pulling from their work and Judeo-Christian religious iconography of 15 to 17th-century Western art history to create her universe. In an interview with W Magazine, Pierre referenced how her work builds from Western art, saying, “I’ve always longed to see myself reflected in that kind of work… so I did my own thing to kind of fill the gap”
A beautifully surreal painting, Written in the Sky uses the aesthetics of the past to imagine a fantastical world of Black female empowerment. As Pierre says: “I’m simply creating a world where I hold the power and get to do whatever I want.”
Enter Pierre’s vibrant and tender universe through Written in the Sky, on view now on Level 1 of the AGO in Reuben Wells Leonard Rotunda (gallery 115).