Smashing Records With Every Stroke – Ernie Barnes

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Ernie Barnes’ work isn’t particularly new to the auction industry. However, in the past few years, the artist’s works have realized unpredictably high prices in the art market, and the trend continues to rise. During a 2022 Christie’s auction, an Ernie Barnes painting sold for a record USD 15.3 million.

African American painter Ernie Barnes created an array of artworks in his signature style, using elongated characters and pronounced body movements. The themes and subjects of his paintings were based on and heavily inspired by his early life growing up in America’s Black communities. 

Here are three of Ernie Barnes’ most popular paintings that fetched record numbers for the artist at auction.

Ernie Barnes, The Disco, 1978. Image courtesy of Christie’s.
Ernie Barnes, The Disco, 1978. Image courtesy of Christie’s.

#1: The Disco, 1978

In October of 2021, an Ernie Barnes painting sold above the $100,000 mark for the first time ever. The 1976 painting, titled The Disco, pictures a crowded club with Black and White patrons partying, dancing in groups, and sitting around cocktail tables. Listed with an estimate of $70,000 to $100,000, the painting sold for $287,000. This marked the beginning of record-breaking sales and soaring prices for Ernie Barnes’ works.

Ernie Barnes, Juba Dis an Juba Dat, 1976. Image courtesy of Christie’s.
Ernie Barnes, Juba Dis an Juba Dat, 1976. Image courtesy of Christie’s.

#2: Juba Dis an Juba Dat, 1976

Another Ernie Barnes artwork that sold over four times the original ask is Juba Dis an Juba Dat. Estimated at $100,000 to $150,000, the painting realized close to $500,000 at a recent Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art sale in July of 2022. Juba is a form of percussive dance that was performed by enslaved individuals of the Jim Crow South. Jim Crow laws were state and local laws enforcing racial segregation in the Southern United States.

The Juba dance involved feet stomping and slapping of hands against one’s own body to produce a series of complex rhythms and a musical form. The street scene and subject of this painting were also inspired by Barnes’ childhood in the Jim Crow South, recapturing moments from his experience with Black American music and dance.

Ernie Barnes, The Sugar Shack, 1976. Image courtesy of Christie’s.
Ernie Barnes, The Sugar Shack, 1976. Image courtesy of Christie’s.

#3: The Sugar Shack, 1976

Touted as Ernie Barnes’ most famous painting, The Sugar Shack sold for $15.3 million at Christie’s 20th Century auction in May of 2022. The selling price realized for this painting was 76 times its original high estimate of $200,000. The painting was inspired by a dance performance Barnes witnessed after sneaking into a downtown Durham armory in 1952. He recreated the celebratory event in his own signature style 24 years later in the 1970s.

Barnes originally created the composition for Marvin Gaye, who featured the image as the cover art for his album I Want You. The Sugar Shack was featured on the television show The Good Times, the first-ever sitcom about a Black American family. With this painting, Barnes also demonstrated his expertise in arranging a large number of bodies in a small space and yet creating a path of travel for the viewer’s eye.

As a kid, Barnes attended racially segregated schools. At 18, he attended the all-Black North Carolina College at Durham, formerly known as North Carolina College for Negros. During a college field trip to a desegregated North Carolina Museum of Art, Barnes inquired about paintings by Black artists, to which he was told, “Your people don’t express themselves that way.” Barnes returned to the museum 23 years later for his solo exhibition.

Despite experiencing hardships, Ernie Barnes used his paintings to portray a positive outlook on life. In most of his works, he tried to capture the moment of joy people find within their communities amidst the discrimination and hardships that await them in the world outside.

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