Now Or Never

This painter challenges views of black men one portrait at a time

Gordon Shadrach's portraits of black men are getting buzz at art fairs across Toronto, and on Instagram.
Gordon Shadrach with one of his paintings. (Jeffrey Vallis)
Listen5:56

Toronto artist Gordon Shadrach is becoming well-known for his striking portraits of black men.

He's painted them wearing everything from five-piece Victorian-era suits to hoodies and ripped jeans — even faces peering out from under dreadlocks, top hats, headwraps and fitted hats.

A portrait of Shadrach's nephew, titled Shade. (Gordon Shadrach)

Shadrach puts all his paintings in antique frames and sells them through Instagram and art fairs. The portraits challenge anyone looking at them to consider what stereotypes they might have about black men.

The first time Shadrach showed his work, the reaction he got was one of appreciation.

Gordon Sadrach's painting titled Patience. (Gordon Shadrach)

"I saw this man make a beeline to my booth with this huge smile on his face and the first words out of his mouth were 'I see myself in that painting,'" said Shadrach. "It was really exciting to see people come up and say, 'I see my father or my uncle.' It was exciting for me to know that people were seeing what should have been a normal experience, but it now became something new for them because they hadn't seen themselves represented in these types of shows."

Shadrach's paintings are often the jumping-off point to intriguing realizations about how black men are viewed in art.

"One of the things I find fascinating is that, when there's a portrait of a black man and he's gazing at the viewer, automatically a lot of people will say to me that there's confrontation in his eyes, there's defiance in his eyes," said Shadrach. 

"I have a lot of discussion with people about the feelings that erupt when they see where the eyes are cast in the subjects of my paintings."

It's not just Shadrach's portraits that cause strong reactions. He also does paintings of shoes with various backgrounds: some on the sidewalk, some on rugs, and some floating in the sky.

Shadrach also paints shoe portraits, like this one, titled Brink. (Gordon Shadrach)

One time, a man approached Shadrach at an art fair and said that the shoe paintings, combined with his portraits of black men, made him think of lynching.

"It was a white gentleman and he was very uncomfortable," said Shadrach. "I was quite surprised because there was a clear division of my shoe portraits and my facial portraits, and it was the first time anyone had brought this really, really heavy, negative lens to my work."

Despite Shadrach saying that it wasn't his intention to evoke thoughts of lynching, the customer insisted that's how he felt when he looked at his work.

It's clear Shadrach's paintings evoke a wide range of emotion. See for yourself by watching the video from CBC Arts below, then hear Shadrach's story by clicking 'listen' above.

“Is a black man who’s well dressed, in a suit — is he going to be treated any differently from a black guy in a hoodie? That is left for the viewer to decide.” - Gordon Shadrach on the men in his paintings 2:33