A voice for change
Charly Palmer was born in Fayette, Alabama (USA) in 1960 and was raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which would shape his artistic vision. He attended the School of Art Institute of Chicago and received a degree from The American Academy of Art.
His passion for drawing and, in turn, painting stems from an early age. His mother, who was a secretary at City Hall, recognised and encouraged her budding artist son and brought home stacks of typing paper for him.
The young Charly would fly through them, drawing at speed with pencils and ballpoint. He would copy everything he saw – cartoons, illustrations, and photographs from magazines. As a child, through observation, he became aware of his “Blackness” and his sense of otherness.
Growing up, Milwaukee was segregated and when he was about 13 his mother Irma had saved up enough money to move into a predominately white area. This separation, this difference had a profound impact on the young artist, as he became more self-conscious and hyper-aware of his identity and his cultural history.
He learnt about Black American history, about slavery, the Reconstruction era, Jim Crow laws, the Civil Rights movement, and Black Power. He witnessed systemic racism and police brutality, years before the George Floyd killing and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. He had watched in horror the beating of Rodney King and saw the anger that was unleashed as a result back in 1992.
It is within this context that Charly felt compelled to make art that not only reflected the socio-political upheaval, but also the Black icons from the world of sport and entertainment who likewise carried the message for change and for justice.
For Charly, they are figures of inspiration and of hope, proving that through hard work, dedication, and talent, it was possible to rise above the discrimination and to triumph in a mainly white society.
On display currently at ArtCatto gallery, in Loulé, are portraits of Nina Simone, one of the greatest singer/songwriters of her time, likewise born in the American South, and a Civil Rights activist. Elsewhere in the gallery is a portrait of Muhammad Ali, “the greatest” heavy weight boxer perhaps of all time and an ardent campaigner.
One of the most striking pieces in the collection at ArtCatto is a portrait of Black boy in an 18th-century dress, playing the violin, one presumes for his master. In the background is a blue rendering of a young Black soldier with his sword at the ready. What role does this boy play in Western society of that period? A mere musical performer or a brave warrior?
Charly Palmer’s artwork reveals not only a fine portrait painter, but also an artist who has a keen eye for pattern, design, and abstraction.
His paintings are adorned with brightly coloured motifs, large flowers, and forms. At times, text is also included. His honed graphic design skills and bold technique saw him be commissioned to design a poster for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, and again for the Winter Olympics in Japan in 1998.
His desire to make a difference for his community can be seen in various ways, such as his illustrations of numerous books like Mama Africa! How Miriam Makeba Spread Hope with Her Song, written by Kathryn Erskine, for which he won an illustration award.
In 2020, he illustrated the cover artwork for John Legend’s studio album Bigger Love and went on, as part of the BLM movement, to do the July 2020 cover for the critically acclaimed “America Must Change” issue of Time magazine.
Together with his wife, Dr Karida Brown they decided to reach out Fisk University, (a historically Black university) to teach and engage with Black students for a year with the Irma Foundation in development, which will support the dreams of Black youngsters who want to pursue a career in the arts. Charly still teaches at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia.
Charly Palmer appreciates that he “has it made” and his strong sense of civic duty and community values compels him to “give back”.
In the last few years, Black and African art has been in vogue, with curators, galleries and institutions rushing to stage exhibitions and promote Black artists, which is great in the same way that female artists are getting the long overdue exposure.
Charly Palmer is very much part of that Black art narrative with his colourful work showcasing his message and his undeniable commitment to his community.
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