Installation view of Thomas J Price <em>All in</em> 2021 at Hauser & Wirth, Somerset, 2021. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Purchased with funds donated by Neville and Diana Bertalli and Loti & Victor Smorgon Fund, 2023. Photo: Ken Adlard<br/>
© Thomas J Price and Hauser & Wirth

Seeing ordinary men and women

Dr Julie Crooks

This essay was first published in NGV Triennial 2023, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

“Bronze is a beautiful material that has a long and illustrious history. It makes me think of ancient Greek statues, the Benin heads at the British Museum and triumphant monuments to various military figures… The constructed figures I make look nothing like the individuals usually depicted in bronze, which is normally reserved for… aggrandising an individual or a movement.” 1
—Thomas J Price

“A man was expected to behave like a man. I was expected to behave like a black man …” 2
—Frantz Fanon

When They See Us, the highly acclaimed miniseries on Netflix, commemorates the thirty-year anniversary of the 1989 arrests of five Black teenage boys for the rape of a white female jogger. Directed by Ava DuVernay, the drama highlights the innocent boys’ harrowing journey, from unlawful arrests and detentions to discriminatory convictions, and ultimately the exoneration of the grown men by the state of New York in 2002. They were dubbed by the media at the time as ‘The Central Park Five’: journalists relied on racist historical tropes and belligerent language to characterise the boys as savage, hyper-sexed ‘thugs’ out to ravage an innocent white woman. The case was presented as a spectacle of Black masculinity. DuVernay made a wilful decision to disrupt the continued dehumanisation of the group by underscoring the humanity of each of the five individuals, by giving them voices and the platform to tell their own stories. That is, to transcend the enduring, narrow and vicious representations of Black masculinity. As filmmaker Pratibha Parmar notes:

Images play a crucial role in defining and controlling the political and social power to which both individuals and marginalized groups have access. The deeply ideological nature of imagery determines not only how other people think about us but how we think about ourselves.3

Thomas J Price is preoccupied with these notions of seeing and being seen, especially as they relate to the Black male body. Through his practice, and specifically his bronze sculpted figures of Black men (and most recently of Black women), Price is disrupting the myriad ways in which black bodies historically have been fetishised, over-determined and hyper-surveilled. Of most importance to Price are the subtleties of human facial expressions and the deeper emotional workings at play in his figures. Two of Price’s monumental bronze sculptures are installed in the atrium of the National Gallery of Victoria as part of the 2023 Triennial. All in, 2021, and Reaching out, 2020, are powerful beacons to the exhibition that engender a hyperconsciousness of the act of looking at the two monumental sculptures featuring subjects of African descent. Given the underlying ethos of Price’s work, which is to challenge deeply entrenched notions of race, power and representation, the centrality of these statues within the context of Australia’s deeply fraught and violent white-settler colonial histories is itself a significant, bold, monumental curatorial choice.

Both sculptures depict the figures feet planted firmly on the floor and not mediated by a plinth. The missing plinths undermine the notion of authority and high status usually ascribed to sculptures. As a result, Price is ‘grounding’ the sculptures in the quotidian, in the here and now and not the heroic distant past. In All in, the hands of the male subject are placed loosely in the pant pockets of his track suit. He wears an impassive, almost blank, expression that looks past into a distant space. The aching banality of his pose prevents an immediate conventional reading of the ‘hyper-cool’ Black man in urban space. Price refers to these encounters as ‘in-between moments when you are not smiling for someone or particularly conscious of how you are presenting yourself’. 4 For Black men, the ability to let one’s guard down thus allows them a freedom to move through the world without the cloud of suspicion or hyper-scrutiny that becomes part of their everyday lives. The relaxed comportment presents the first set of tensions in Price’s work. The figures do not resemble real individuals – they are, in fact, composite renderings based on Price’s imagination and the men he encounters on the streets of London. And despite their imaginative cut-and-mix status, the statues exude familiarity and a range of complex, seemingly contradictory emotions including vulnerability, self-possession, control and uncertainty.

Price employs the classic lost wax technique to cast his sculptures, a laborious method used by ancient cultures in the Mediterranean and in West and Central African kingdoms. As such, the works ‘challenge the erasure of Black bodies within the traditions of classical sculpture’.5 Price is not only building on and challenging neo-classical sculptural traditions, but he also draws on sculptural strategies developed by artists during the Harlem Renaissance, as well as current trends in contemporary African Diasporic art.

Price’s depiction of Black men and their masculinity through sculpture is not necessarily new or unique – there is a host of artists who preceded his practice, and who have explored this subject matter. It is instructive to recall the work of Richmond Barthé, who produced sculptures of nude Black men in the 1920s and 1930s, for the ways in which he anticipated Price’s current concern with the representation of Black male bodies in space. Barthé is considered the first modern African American sculptor, forging the way for younger artists during this period. When sculpting his male figures, Barthé deliberately employed a ‘classical model’ in his attempt to ‘rescue the contaminated [stereotyped and caricatured] black body out of centuries of denigration’.6 For Barthé, the Black male body could be aestheticised, and salvaged from its denigration, if classicised – perhaps a naive perception, but one stemming from his education, and situated within the artistic and institutional norms of his time. Therefore, he paid careful attention to the ways in which his sinuous, sensual and expressive figures were sculpted to be both idealised and naturalistic. Barthés attempts to create a new representation of a beautiful Black male, while fulfilling his admirations for the classical ideals, were admirable. However, such blurring of lines during this period did not necessarily resonate beyond restricted white art circles. Within the existing social hierarchies of race – when Black bodies outside the art establishment were shunned, excluded and persecuted – sculptures featuring the Black male figure could not possibly have received the revised, revolutionised and favourable reception for which their creators had hoped.

In contrast, and against this demoralising historical backdrop, Price’s practice resists the hierarchies of Western sculptural traditions while wilfully appropriating them. As he notes in the opening epigraph, in the ancient worlds (Greco- Roman and African), bronze was viewed as a noble material when it came to the creation of honorific sculptures and objects. Yet, his figures are not ennobled and are not meant to document power, authority and prestige; furthermore, they do not purport to embody the values of a particular class or profession.7 Thus, while Price consciously builds upon the aesthetic and ideological challenges confronted by his forerunners, such as Barthé, in relation to representing the Black male body, the ‘burden of representation’ is a fleeting one for him. Price approaches the creation of his figures with an uncanny conceptual freedom that allows him, with great skill and nuance, to subvert social hierarchies related to Blackness and masculinity while highlighting the formal qualities related to materiality and sculptural aesthetics.

Reaching out represents the first time Price created large-scale public sculpture where the figure is of a woman. Wearing casual pants and sneakers, the woman is depicted looking down at her phone – a fleeting, ubiquitous moment of preoccupation. Price notes, ‘This work … continues a theme of balancing experiences of isolation and connectedness, whilst acknowledging the different ways in which technology mediates our lives.’ 8 Beyond the female figure’s monumentality is the recognition of her existence as a human simply being in space. Price plays with the viewer’s perception by upending the cultural baggage and predetermined views they bring to the gallery and to the figures on view. As he observes, ‘The work is about coming to terms with understanding other people, how people read each other and form opinions of each other … I’m playing a mischievous game to get people to ask questions.’
9 Indeed, Price’s work affords a complexity in the ways in which we see and relate to the Black male figure. Slyly, he relies on a tension between the ‘familiar’ and dissimilar to underscore such complexities.

Thomas J Price <em>Reaching out</em> 2022, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Felton Bequest, 2023. Photo: Ken Adlard<br/>
&copy; Thomas J Price and Hauser &amp; Wirth

Price’s concern with depicting the emotional capacity of his Black subjects is perhaps his way of framing their humanity in a manner that resists the insidious notion that Black men and women are already known, comparable and interchangeable. As such, he simultaneously counters the idea of Black people as a singular ‘type’, disposable and replaceable, with the gentle, yet realistic and precise intensity of his masterful portraits.

Much of Price’s sculptural practice is largely ‘figurative’, but he also balances with nimble and ingenious dexterity the conceptual and abstract underpinning of his works. In this regard, Price is part of a growing coterie of contemporary artists of African descent who have turned to the ‘figurative’ to express the complexities of Black diasporic lives in their practices. The list of these artists is long, spanning generations and employing a variety of formal approaches. Among Price’s generation, Kerry James Marshall’s practice has been the most visible, influential and generative in placing at the forefront work that is grounded in ‘putting blackness into art history’. 10 The figures in Marshall’s paintings are literally rendered in ebony to counter the invisibility of Black bodies in the Western canon. Price’s unique bronze sculptures and overall investment in the Black figure has earned him a secure place in this genealogy of Black art making. What makes Price’s works even more compelling is his emphasis on the faces of his figures or what he describes as the ‘psychological propositions’ of the mind, which move beyond the surface, and transcend the customary concern with skin colour.11

Yet, like all the bronze figures in the trajectory of his practice, the indexical cues to the character’s temperament and emotional state are vague and elusive. Taken together, both All in and Reaching out vibrate with intensity and psychological profundity, which will continue to resonate long after their viewing.

Classical aesthetics come together with contemporary conceptual concerns, deployed in the artist’s practice to disrupt deeply entrenched, reductive and problematic notions about race. Through his exquisitely executed work, he subtly conveys the persistent injustices to which Black communities are subjected – not only directly, in terms of the emotional and physical duress they must endure, but also indirectly, through perception, stereotypes and unfounded judgements. Price generously forces us to not simply look as art spectators, but to see, as human beings, our fellow ordinary men and women.

Originally published in Gaëtane Verna (ed.), Thomas J Price: Ordinary Men, The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, Toronto, 2021.

DR JULIE CROOKS is a Canadian curator, researcher and instructor. She has been the head of the department of Arts of Global Africa and the Diaspora at the Art Gallery of Ontario since its founding in 2020. Crooks holds a PhD from the Department of History of Art and Archaeology at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, UK.



Gabrielle Schwarz, Thomas J Price: Material Visions, Hales Gallery, London, 2017, pp. 5, 58.


Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, Pluto Press, London and Sydney, 1967, p. 114.


Pratibha Parmar in bell hooks, Black Looks: Race and Representation, Between the Lines, Toronto, 1992, p. 5.


Tendai John Mutambu, ‘Thomas J Price: Reframing Classical Sculpture’, Ocula, 14 June 2019.


Personal interview with the artist, July 2019.


Margaret Rose Vendryes, Barthé: A Life in Sculpture, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 2008, p. 3.


See Harry Berger, Jr, ‘Fictions of the Pose: Facing the Gaze of Early Modern Portraiture’, Representations, vol. 46, 1994, p. 94.


Thomas J Price (@thomasjprice), 2020, ‘The debate never went away. Some things take time…’, Instagram post, 20 July 2020, < CC0bTJqB3oL/?hl=en>.


Hannah Duguid, ‘Masculinity stripped to the core: Tom Price’s bronze sculptures of black men’, Independent, 26 Jan. 2014.


Dushko Petrovich, ‘The New Face of Portrait Painting’, The New York Times Style Magazine, 12 February 2018.


Josh Jones, ‘Thomas J Price’s Sculptural Investigations’, Interview, 6 April 2016, p. 11.