Artist Bart Cooper Talks Capturing Our Favorite Black Icons
Bart Cooper / photo credit: Drew Carolan

Bart Cooper’s series Heroes: My Heroes Actually Have Real Super Powers boldly portrays Black sheroes like Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Rosa Parks and Winnie Mandela in T-shirts bearing the insignias of Superman, Green Lantern, Iron Man and Black Panther, respectively.

Bart Cooper at Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California.

Connecting these freedom fighters with the visual symbolism of superheroes and layering the colorful imagery with quotations from these and other Black sheroes makes a powerful statement. Indeed, Cooper’s vibrant and unapologetic mash-ups of history and pop culture have been featured in art exhibitions nationwide and attracted celebrity fans.

Essence Ventures founder and chairman Richelieu Dennis gifted the company’s new Brooklyn headquarters with Bart Cooper’s series Heroes: My Heroes Actually Have Real Super Powers. Top row, from left: Lucy Parsons (Magneto), Harriet Tubman (Superman), Sojourner Truth (Green Lantern), Winnie Mandela (Black Panther), Rosa Parks (Iron Man). Bottom row, from left: Angela Davis (The Punisher), Nina Simone (Wonder Woman), Oprah Winfrey (Captain America), Madam C.J. Walker (Batman) and Henrietta Lacks (The Incredible Hulk).

His particular approach to the series might leave some wondering why he hasn’t followed some cultural icons, like author Roxane Gay and fantasy writer N. K. Jemisin, into the medium of comic books. “Comic books have played a big role in my journey and pushed my passion to draw,” admits the Liberia-born, Los Angeles-based artist. “But I decided to pursue the fine arts because it allows me to be more serious in the messages I convey, with the whole story on one page. I love that.”

I decided to pursue the fine arts because it allows me to be more serious in the message I convey, with the whole story on one page. I love that.”

-Bart Cooper

Drawing since the age of 3 with a skill and vision beyond his years, Cooper was inspired in his craft by artists as diverse as Norman Rockwell and Ernie Barnes. The latter is most famous for the painting titled “The Sugar Shack,” from Good Times; the painting also adorned the cover of Marvin Gaye’s 1976 album, I Want You. Good Times aired in Liberia when I was a child,” Cooper recalls. “That painting always grabbed my attention.

Cooper at his 2019 art show, Heroes: My Heroes Actually Have Real Super Powers, in Los Angeles

Each time I watched the show, I would wait to see the painting, to take in something new.” As for Rockwell, Cooper notes that “his figurative works capture the essence and soul of America. I want my art to do the same. I want to speak to the soul of viewers when they lay eyes on my work.” Celebrity culture is at the center of much of Cooper’s work.

His Ermias “Nipsey Hussle” Asghedom portrait (2019; mixed media and acrylic) is from the artist’s Purple Series collection

His Fame series features Kanye West in multi-color acrylic portraits, reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s photographic silkscreens. He also rendered Rihanna, Janelle Monáe, Grace Jones and others in his Purple Series, dedicated to distinctive figures in pop culture. “Each one possesses a certain uniqueness,” he says, “an authenticity that makes them a one-of-a-kind individual. They inspire me to take a page out of their book, to push myself to be that rare individual, too.” By all indications, Bart Cooper is already there.

This interview originally appeared in the May/June 2020 issue of ESSENCE magazine, available on newsstands now.

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