Robert Peterson’s Intimate Portraits of Black Peace and Strength

Flipping the script on how Black families are often portrayed, the Oklahoma-based painter lovingly illustrates the strength and gentleness that flows throughout his community as a way to correct the historical record. “I want my subjects to get the chance to live forever through my work.”

“Sunday Kind of Love” (2022) by Robert Peterson. Image courtesy of Claire Oliver Gallery

Here, we ask an artist to frame the essential details behind one of their latest works.

Bio: Robert Peterson, 41, Lawton, OK (@caleblee81)

Title of work: Sunday Kind of Love (2022). 

Where to see it: “When You See Them, You See Me” at Claire Oliver Gallery (2288 Adam Clayton Poweel Jr. Blvd, New York) until Nov. 5.

Three words to describe it: Personal. Love. Beautiful.

What was on your mind at the time: This exhibition is a personal one. I wanted to find a way to capture the balance I have in my life as a husband and a father, and as a Black man. I was also thinking about the future—how centuries from now I want people to view Black people and Black families engaging with normalcy and harmony. 

More specifically, I have a memory in mind. Before my wife and I had kids, we would use the weekends to reconnect and clear our minds of the previous work week. We would often lay on the bed or couch in silence, listening to each other breathe and the sounds of each other’s heartbeats. It was peace. I wanted to capture that feeling so it can live forever and contrast the often-negative narrative the media associates with Black culture. 

“When You See Them, You See Me” at Claire Oliver Gallery. Image courtesy of Claire Oliver Gallery

An interesting feature that’s not immediately noticeable: I had in mind an interesting note from the Bible that says when a man and woman incite, they become one as if in the same flesh. While it’s not immediately obvious, I chose to have the durag and head scarf share the same colors, representing a oneness of the two.

How it reflects your practice as a whole: My practice as a whole explores the mundane as a radical act of visibility for Black Americans. With this work in particular, I wanted to reflect a side of Black that isn’t shared enough—one that is strong and resilient, yet gentle. This painting shows the love, respect, and protection from this Black man to his wife. In return, she is confident and comfortable laying in his arms. This is a true representation of the Black community that’s hardly ever showcased, making it even more important that this family dynamic—one that’s joyous, loving, and balanced—is shown clearly and honestly.

One song that captures its essence: “Sunday Kind of Love” by Etta James.

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