The Honorable Elijah E. Cummings Portrait | Exhibition Opens
Wednesday, December 29 | Ongoing through January 9
@ The Baltimore Museum of Art
“I want justice. Oceans of it. I want fairness. Rivers of it.”
Whether he was in front of a large audience quoting passages from the Bible or conversing with residents in various Baltimore neighborhoods, the Honorable Elijah E. Cummings (1951–2019) was a magisterial presence, known for his deep, reassuring voice and hands that moved with strength and grace in equal measure. His life’s work was to protect the underserved and U.S. democracy.
Born in South Baltimore during the Jim Crow era of segregation, Cummings became a lawyer, state delegate, and twelve-term United States congressman. Representative Cummings also served as Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.
Cummings used his committee platform to defend democratic norms and the rule of law against multiple and serious threats during his tenure, often saying, “We’re better than this!” After his untimely passing, Cummings became the first Black congressperson to lay in state in the United States Capitol. Former presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton both lauded the integrity and steadfastness of the representative at his memorial service. The committee renamed its room in the House of Representative’s Rayburn House Office Building in commemoration in 2020.
For Cummings’ official portrait, a selection committee awarded the commission to Baltimore artist Jerrell Gibbs. Gibbs approached the commission with seriousness and circumspection, immersing himself fully in Cummings’ life; consulting with his widow, Dr. Maya Rockeymoore Cummings; and experimenting with different compositions and poses over many months.
The painting is inspired by Baltimore-based photographer Justin T. Gellerson’s image of Cummings, which features on the cover for Cummings’ memoir, We’re Better than This: My Fight for the Future of Our Democracy. Gibbs’ portrait continues the artist’s exploration of memory, time, presence and absence, and the variation of paint handling on canvas.
Gibbs began his practice as a self-taught painter when his wife, Sheila, bought him an easel for Father’s Day in 2014. After exhibiting widely in the region, he completed his MFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art in spring 2020. Since then, Gibbs has been catapulted to the national stage. With his loose style and exquisite use of color, Gibbs focuses on the complexities of the Black experience, endowing his subjects with a timeless air of nobility.
After its display at the BMA, this painting will hang permanently in the new Elijah E. Cummings Room to inspire lawmakers on Capitol Hill.