Seven Luminaries Shine at the National Portrait Gallery

Newly commissioned portraits of Ava DuVernay, the Williams sisters, José Andrés, and more will enter the Smithsonian museum to celebrate the biennial Portrait of a Nation Awards.

Serena Williams by Toyin Ojih Odutola. Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Every two years, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery honors a group of luminaries who’ve made major contributions to the U.S. by enlisting esteemed artists to create their portraits. The results not only help grow the museum’s collection of 23,000 artworks “in a way that recognizes the diversity of the country,” director Kim Sajet says, but also taps into the creative vitality of “dynamic artists who are pushing the boundaries of what portraiture can be.” This year’s honorees are no exception: chef and humanitarian José Andrés, music mogul Clive Davis, filmmaker Ava DuVernay, civil rights activist Marian Wright Edelman, physician-scientist Anthony Fauci, and tennis trailblazers Venus and Serena Williams. 

DuVernay and the Williams sisters each collaborated with an up-and-coming Black artist to spellbinding results. Serena Williams set her sights on Toyin Ojih Odutola, the Nigerian-born artist whose charcoal drawings explore identity. Ojih Odutola rendered Serena—who recently announced her evolution away from tennis—in a moment of unbridled joy, grinning and enveloped by foliage.

(FROM LEFT) Venus Williams by Robert Pruitt. Ava DuVernay by Kenturah Davis. Images courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Venus Williams, who perused a shortlist before landing on Bronx artist Robert Pruitt, opted for a more serious tone. Pruitt recast a mirror selfie as a venue for introspection—Williams dons a Wimbledon trophy dish as a chest plate while her reflection is encircled with the hair beads she often wore on court early in her career. Nodding to DuVernay’s mastery of the moving image, L.A. artist Kenturah Davis used a long exposure to capture her face turning from side to side. She then translated the image pixel-by-pixel using rubber stamps and inscribed a hidden message that DuVernay’s father told her before he passed away. 

Portrait of a Nation: 2022 Honorees” goes on view at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., starting Nov. 10.

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