Tamara Natalie Madden (1975 –2017) was a Jamaican-born mother, mixed-media artist, and professor of art and visual culture at Spelman College in Atlanta. On November 4, 2017, she died at her home in Snellville, Georgia, only two weeks after being diagnosed with Stage 4 ovarian cancer. She was 42.
“Out of Many, One People”
Though Tamara Natalie Madden was born in Kingston, Jamaica, she spent her teenage years in Madison, Wisconsin. Born with dark skin to a mother with light skin, Ms. Madden observed endemic racist behavior from people of color, both in Jamaica and in the United States – based solely on the degree of darkness of skin; thus began Ms. Madden’s desire to show other black children that they are beautiful through her art.
She said in an interview with Daniel Solomon, “At home, we never thought of color. We are a mixed-race people, and very proud of our African heritage and whatever else.”
Her portraits were displayed in the 2015 Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania exhibition entitled “Out of Many, One People.”
“True to her show title,
the artist pushes against distinctions
on the basis of skin tone.”
Video: Out of Many, One People
Influences: Klimt, Nsoroma, Royalty
Madden’s artistic influences were varied, and included Gustav Klimt, Milwaukee artist Ras Ammar Nsoroma, African royalty, Egypt, Asia and the clothing worn by native African and Indian women. She chose to paint imagery that represented the people of the African diaspora.[3 Though largely self-taught in art, she says she learned valuable lessons, like color theory and drawing, from mentors along the way.
Daniel Solomon (June 2015) describes Ms. Madden’s art:
Through individual portraits, Ms. Madden depicts members of the island’s underclass as saints and warriors, gurus and kings. Her portraits stand out for their color and texture, the men and women attired in vivid, quilted-fabric garments sewn onto the canvas.
They also have a clear racial dimension. One features a dark-skinned Virgin Mary with a light-skinned baby Jesus. Another places two queens of various complexions — one pale-white, the other coal-black — side by side. True to her show title, the artist pushes against distinctions on the basis of skin tone. Daniel Solomon, (June 2015), Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Fabrics, Quilting, and Tradition
In an interview with Kurt Shaw (April 2015) concerning her solo exhibit “Out of Many, One People” in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Ms. Madden explains her use of fabrics and quilting in her multimedia pieces, saying that her art is “based on her memories of the people of her native Jamaica.” Madden told Shaw that she has “placed them in beautiful fabrics (raw silks, colorful satins) that mimic those worn by royalty. The fabrics are laminated on top of the paintings.”
She continues, “I started using fabrics because I was interested in quilting. The history of quilting in Jamaica is connected to telling stories and maintaining family connections.” Furthermore, Madden says she also started to see how luxurious fabrics might elevate the status of the regular person by increasing their self-esteem.“It helps to guide people’s perception of us. Clothing is a way of telling the story of a person’s intrinsic beauty.” Tamara Natalie Madden (April 2015)
Medium: Acrylics, Gold Leaf, Fabric
Ms. Madden explains her preferences:
“While I enjoy using a variety of mediums to create, my medium of choice is acrylic paint. I also use… gold leaf and fabric. I am fascinated with the idea of the flat juxtaposed with the volumetric, particularly since most of my work is about emphasis on the individual. I chose to use quilting in my pieces because it denotes a strong historical connection to African ancestry.” tamaranataliemadden.org
What About the Birds?
According to the artist, her inspiration to paint stems from her medical history as well as her culture. She was born with a rare genetic disease called IgA nephropathy which resulted in kidney failure. She met a half-brother, previously unknown to her in Jamaica, who donated a kidney for transplant in 2001, about which Ms. Madden says the following:
“I got the transplant in 2001 and that’s why I started to paint. That’s why I put birds in my painting because I was on dialysis and now the birds represent freedom from illness. I paint because I have to and so I paint in memory of the other people that I live with in Jamaica, the everyday hardworking people. For me, it’s about heightening these people and giving them the opportunity to shine. My work, I’m very connected to it—very, very connected to it—so it’s very personal.” Quote from okayafrica (2015)
“The birds in my paintings are symbolic
of my personal struggle with
illness, and a representation
of my survival and freedom from it.
Video: Gallery of Paintings
“The golden headpieces worn by most
of the subjects in my paintings represent
mystical crowns, halos, armor and weaponry
for the spiritual warriors.”
Challenge: ‘Black’, ‘Woman’, ‘Artist’
When asked about the greatest challenge in her career, Ms. Madden answered:
“Being an artist requires a lot of sacrifice… patience, and faith… Unfortunately, in the art world, I’m not just…an artist; I am ‘black’, then ‘woman’, then ‘artist.’ All of those titles present their own unique set of obstacles. In addition… while being taken seriously, and not losing my integrity; I have to be an educator. It’s essential that the new generation… learn about the arts… They need to understand that art is an investment, which will benefit them for many generations…(and) that art is the keeper of history…; it’s an essential doorway to their ancestors.” Patrice Peck (2010)
Legacy and Artistic Purpose
Ms Madden describes her artistic purpose in the following passage:
“My work deals with the social, spiritual and cultural identity of people of African ancestry. Jamaican people, and my memories of living there, served as a catalyst for this body of work. The intent of my work is for it to function as a voice for those ‘every day‘ folk who are overlooked and shunned because of their station in life.” tamaranataliemadden.org/
Ms. Madden continues,
“In order to fully represent the intrinsic beauty of many of these individuals, I decided to emphasize society’s fascination with materialism and splendor by using bright colors, golden washes, silk fabrics, and bold patterns. I found that the most powerful images of our time were those that demanded attention and admiration, and I wanted these individuals to have their moment to shine, thus many of my paintings feature singular portraits.” tamaranataliemadden.org/
The Jamaican Theme
According to Daniel Solomon (2015):
“What distinguishes Ms. Madden’s work, however, is the specific focus on Jamaica….(Her) work does not beat the viewer over the head with its ideology. It instead uses aesthetics — line and value, in particular — to draw attention to her subjects’ oversized, expressive faces. Ms. Madden hopes viewers will leave with a better understanding of her home country and a desire to learn more.”
“We are what we are ….
We live in mountains and cities and near the sea.
We come in all colors.
Ours is a complicated and interesting island.”
Video: Vanderbilt University
This video shows Tamara Natalie Madden’s lecture “Illuminations: Crowned, Cloaked and Cultivated” Vanderbilt University March 27,2012.
This Jamaican born, Atlanta-based painter and mixed-media artist is remembered for structuring her work around the people of the African diaspora. Tamara Natalie Madden is known for artwork focusing on the social, spiritual and cultural identity of people of African ancestry, and her paintings portray ordinary people as royalty.
Despite Ms. Madden’s challenging childhood in Jamaica, the artist was positively influenced. She explains,
“Amazing people surrounded me, including my grandmother, who despite her struggle with poverty and emotional strain, found it in her heart to give back, to care for and support her fellow man. The neighbors would share food, water, and their love for God. I always found that to be amazing, and I wanted the voices of those people to be heard.” Tiffany Slade (2011)
Ms. Madden’s own words describe her higher purpose:
“Inspired by and images of royalty of the Akan people of Ghana and other parts of West Africa, I decided to turn regular folk into nobility. Each piece of art is an allegory that represents the soul and spirit of the individual. Their regal state embodies all that is often hidden and overlooked. My work is not about egoism; it is about empowerment of the spirit and recognition of the beauty within.” tamaranataliemadden.org/
Tamara Natalie Madden will be remembered for the truth, beauty, and power of her portraits, as well as for her desire to educate the next generation. Her work has been collected world-wide and has been featured in prominent galleries, newspapers, magazines, and blogs. Many pieces have permanent homes at prestigious universities.
Furthermore, “She’s exhibited in many groups and solo exhibitions, and was a recipient of an individual grant from the Puffin Foundation for her project, “Never Forgotten”, which focused on combating poverty worldwide.” tamaranataliemadden.org/
I hope that a complete gallery of her remarkable art work will soon be made available online for educational purposes – in celebration both of her strength of spirit and of her artistic accomplishments.
Gallery of Selected Works
“I wanted these individuals
to have their moment to shine.”
Atlanta Tribune, Remembering Spelman’s Tamara Natalie Madden, Artist and Professor, Nov. 14, 2017, http://www.atlantatribune.com/2017/11/14/remembering-spelmans-tamara-natalie-madden-artist-and-professor/ (accessed 1 Oct 2018).
okayafrica, Fade To Black: On The State Of Artists Of Color At Art Basel, Dec. 11, 2015, http://www.okayafrica.com/fade-to-black-art-basel-miami/ (accessed 1 Oct 2018).
Daniel Solomon.”Artist’s portraits give insights to life in Jamaica”, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 13, 2015, http://www.post-gazette.com/ae/art-architecture/2015/06/14/Tamara-Natalie-Madden-portraits-give-insights-to-life-in-Jamaica/stories/201506100017 (accessed 2 Oct 2018).
Tamara Natalie Madden Foundation, Tamara Natalie Madden, Her Legacy, Her Impact, http://tamaranataliemadden.org/ (accessed 2 Oct 2018).
Karolle Rabarison, The Morning News, “The Guardians” by Tamara Natalie Madden,
Kurt Shaw, Art Review: Gianna Paniagua and Tamara Natalie Madden at Penn Galleries,The Tribune-Review, April 29, 2015,https://triblive.com/aande/museums/8256881-74/madden-says-paniagua#axzz3dI7qMWDw, (accessed 2 Oct 2018),
Patrice Peck, Black Girls Rock, In Living Color: An Interview with Artist Tamara Natalie Madden, May 11, 2010, https://blackgirlsrock.wordpress.com/2010/05/11/in-living-color-an-interview-with-artist-tamara-natalie-madden/ (accessed 2 Oct 2018).
Tiffany Nicole Slade, On Verge Alternative Art Criticism http://www.on-verge.org/features/everyday-heroes-behind-the-art-of-tamara-natalie-madden-2/ (accessed 2 Oct 2018)., Everyday Heroes: Behind the Art of Tamara Natalie Madden, Aug. 4, 2011,
Wikipedia contributors, “Tamara Natalie Madden,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Tamara_Natalie_Madden&oldid=849135169 (accessed October 2, 2018).
Images all © to the artist or owners, all rights reserved by them unless otherwise identified.
I was unable to find proper titles and dates for some of the paintings, despite a lengthy search. If you can help, please comment.