Jordan Casteel is used to bringing other people’s faces and humanity to the spotlight with her portraits, which capture moments of proximity with people and environments she has encountered on the streets of Harlem, within the New York subway, in her classrooms, and in the spaces occupied by those closest to her. Her paintings depict, in luminous hues and nearly life-size proportions, people of color and landscapes that convey relationships of mutual respect and care that extend beyond the canvas.
This week the spotlight shone on her as she joined the 2021 class of MacArthur Fellows, commonly known as “genius grants.”
The MacArthur Fellowship is awarded every year to talented individuals in a variety of fields who have shown exceptional originality in and dedication to their creative pursuits. Fellows receive $625,000 stipends that are bestowed with no conditions; recipients may use the money as they see fit. Nominated anonymously by leaders in their respective fields and considered by an anonymous selection committee, recipients learn of their selection only when they receive a call from the MacArthur Foundation just before the public announcement.
Casteel, who is an Associate Professor in the Arts, Culture & Media department at SASN, said she was overwhelmed when the Foundation called to let her know she was a fellow. “When I got the call informing me that I was a 2021 MacArthur Fellow, I was in my studio, and I’d just wrapped up another interview and my phone kept ringing and I didn’t understand why Chicago was calling me. When they informed me that I had been selected as a fellow I was so confused. Initially I just didn’t understand what was happening, and then, as it began to set in, I was crying. I was literally, completely overwhelmed and crying, and confused and full of joy. I just felt this overwhelming sense of stillness, and pride and peace, knowing that my community has acknowledged the work that I’ve been doing in such a monumental way.”
In her paintings, Casteel often centers her subjects in forward-facing, seated positions. The intimate bond formed between artist and sitter is revealed from the self-possessed expressions of her subjects, which invite a direct connection with the viewer. The paintings are pieced together from multiple photographs that reference a shared moment in time, during which relationships are cultivated that continue to flourish long after the work is completed. This practice can be witnessed when sitters and their family members participate in museum exhibitions of works that bear their names as titles—Yahya, Q, Yvonne and James—ensuring that they are seen as collaborators in the composition of each painting. The works in Casteel’s Visible Man series (2013–2014) redirected the gaze of all-too-common depictions of Black men in media. Her intensely personal and emotionally resonant renderings of male nudes highlight her subjects’ vulnerability and affirm their individuality. Casteel also invites the viewer to consider “Blackness” as a concept and social construct through her experimental use of color. Her figures’ skin often glows with patches of red, yellow, lavender, or pink, complementing their vibrant surroundings. The Baayfalls (2017) is a painting from a later series focused on the streets of Harlem. It features Fallou Wadje, a Senegalese-born designer who sold her hats and jewelry outside of the Studio Museum of Harlem, and her brother Baaye Demba Sow, a member of the Baye Fall Brotherhood—a Sufi Islamic sect. Casteel reverentially attends to each detail of the pair’s boldly patterned clothing and to Fallou’s hand gesture signifying Allah. Originally painted on a six-by-seven-foot canvas, the portrait was recreated as a massive public mural for display along the High Line in New York.
Other recent works, which feature her students at Rutgers-Newark and family members in settings of their choosing, expand upon Casteel’s commitment to broadening whose likenesses appear in museum and gallery spaces. By honoring the surroundings and people that she sees day-to-day, Casteel prompts viewers to meet the gaze of others and to recognize our shared humanity.
Jacqueline Mattis, Dean of the School of Arts & Sciences-Newark, was overjoyed to hear Casteel had received this recognition by the MacArthur Foundation. "She belongs in this esteemed community of people who have been able to use their genius to transform the way we see and are seen, the way we live, and our capacity to thrive. Her work has been so important to showing the dignity, the grace, the humanity and the beauty of people—African American people. She leans into mundane moments in people’s lives in order to do the extraordinary. Our SASN colleagues and students have had the great fortune of witnessing and benefitting from Jordan’s incredible vision. Our students have benefitted from her thoughtful and careful mentorship. It is wonderful to see her celebrated and honored in this way.”
Casteel is the second person to become a fellow while part of the faculty at Rutgers-Newark. John Keene, Distinguished Professor and Chair of the Department of African and African American Studies, was awarded the grant in 2018 for his work exploring the impact of historical narratives on contemporary lives and re-imagining the history of the Americas from the perspective of suppressed voices. Annette Gordon-Reed, who was a Board of Governors Professor of History at RU-N from 2007–2010, received the grant in 2010.
Even as she takes in the immensity of this award, Casteel is already looking to the future. “It is one of the greatest honors I could have ever imagined and I really look forward to seeing where this allows me to evolve and change and grow and take the practice with me.”
“As we emerge from the shadows of the past two years, this class of 25 Fellows helps us reimagine what’s possible. They demonstrate that creativity has no boundaries,” said Cecilia Conrad, Managing Director of the fellowship program, “Once again, we have the opportunity for exultation as we recognize the potential to create objects of beauty and awe, advance our understanding of society, and foment change to improve the human condition.”