Princeton student honours African American blue collar workers

Rashida Campbell-Allen discusses representation in art following Mario Moore's Princeton exhibition

Is the notion in the modern art world that working-class people of colour can only be created and depicted by artists of color? Arguably yes. Artist Mario Moore, a Yale graduate and recipient of The Hodder Fellowship in 2018-2019, has drawn on his own stories, experiences and environments within the university to depict those African-American blue-collar workers that are often overlooked and not illuminated in portrait form, thus rendered invisible in both everyday life and the art world.  

“The Work of Several Lifetimes” is the exhibition of Moore’s work consisting of several portraits of blue-collar workers, such as security guards, dining staff and grounds people, depicting a mixture of black men and women. Princeton often has corridors and spaces of grandeur lined with portraits of the wealthy founders, prominent alumni and presidents, yet what Moore’s work draws attention to is how these blue-collar workers are the ones who create and maintain the very foundation upon which such success and value emerges from. By creating portraiture of these workers it is not only a display of respect and acknowledgement, but also power. It is a beautiful way to recognise the subjects’ occupation within a space like Princeton University which is stereotypically white-dominated. 

Portraiture, in my opinion, is the practice of representation. A way to give life, visibility and stories to everyday individuals. Although historically, portraits were reserved for the elite as markers of wealth, marriage and legacy, today they can be used to shine light over any individual with empowering results. Drawing back on the notion of race, Moore’s work is particularly necessary and poignant given the racial tensions that somehow continue to exist, particularly in America. Equality can be depicted and suggested through art, especially through portraiture, by having lay-people of colour demanding and commanding an entire space: a canvas. 

Moore's art is a demonstration of the class and racial-oriented realities of not just Princeton University, but the art world itself

I would even go as far as to say (although possibly a slightly abstract thought) that the canvas of these portraits could be seen as a social microcosm of possibility, progress and equality. Mario Moore depicts the subjects in both their workplaces and leisurely spaces which speaks to the rich and meaningful personal lives they lead beyond the physical space of the university. 

The very nature of this artwork collection is intersectionality; Moore's art is a demonstration of the class and racial-oriented realities of not just Princeton University, but the art world itself. How often do we see portraits of blue-collar, working class people of colour in portraiture? Is this a direct call to engage and inspire more black artists to depict their realities and interactions with these workers, or does it fall on the responsibility of all artists, regardless of ethnicity or class?  

Art is visual storytelling, and in the words of Mario Moore, “When it comes to art, whoever tells their story has the power. I just like telling history.”.

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