A Houston energy trader said $15.3 million was a “theft” for the drawing

The simple pleasure of dancing at a club in North Carolina may be insignificant to some.

But what the late artist Ernie Barnes drew in his famous 1976 painting, “The Sugar Shack,” was Black Joy. She was born of Jim Crow South descent and crafted from the abundance of black life in a turbulent world.

His piece shows women and men dancing away from societal weight by celebrating the night’s happiness. The outstretched figures, bearing Barnes’ signature, seem to sway in graceful rhythm as a band plays on a separate ballroom. On the stairs there is an old man in a blue uniform sitting with a newspaper at his feet.

The plaque was featured on the cover of Marvin Gaye’s album, “I Want You” and in the credits of the 1970s television comedy “Good Times” as the show’s theme song, “I’m Not Lucky We’ve Got It. Good Times.” Last month, Houston energy trader Bill Perkins bought it for $15.3 million at Christie’s Auction of the 20th century, although it was estimated at only $200,000. Perkins has loaned the piece to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston until December 31.

“The Play” by Ernie Barnes

Ronald Curtis

“Welcome to The Sugar Shack. Dance every Friday and Saturday night with Big Daddy Rucker.”

If you’re going to collect American art, Perkins said, Barnes should be at the top of your list.

“There is nothing more American than Barnes’s painting of the joy of blacks in the South in a sugar hut,” he said. “He’s not just an artist. He’s like John Biggers, Elizabeth Catlett, Norman Lewis. These are the people, African Americans, whom I call the first or second generation of American art masters. When you look at Monet and ask, ‘Who are their African contemporaries?'” ? They were slaves at that time. Even after slavery, they had to form communities for food, shelter, and clothing, before they could get paintbrushes and cloth to express themselves.”

General Xer who grew up watching “Good Times” and pasted the cover of Marvin Gaye’s album on his bedroom wall, saw the painting as a piece from his childhood. Something he has been wishing for years to add to his diverse art collection, which includes works by pop artist Roy Lichtenstein along with many pieces by the late Houston Biggers artist.

Houston energy trader Bill Perkins sent ripples through the art world last week when he bought Ernie Barnes' most famous painting,

Houston energy dealer Bill Perkins sent ripples through the art world last week when he bought Ernie Barnes’ most famous painting, “The Sugar Shack” (1976) for $15.3 million during a 20th Century Christie’s auction.

“The Sugar Shack” by Ernie Barnes, from 1976, Christie’s Images Ltd.

Nostalgia fueled Perkins’ urgent need to hop on a plane with fiancé Lara Sebastian to New York for the auction. He didn’t want to risk being outbid by the likes of Oprah Winfrey or anyone of similar fortune. It was more than just a win for Perkins, who is also a professional poker player, author and film producer – it was a purchase of history.

He shocked many in the art world for eagerly paying $15.3 million for a Barnes painting. From his point of view, it was a theft. The painting had to be sold for a much larger amount, but the work of African American artists is often undervalued and understated.

“The fact that I am able to own a black artist’s masterpiece for free is just ridiculous,” he said.

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He’s been showered with congratulations on his purchase, but knows that his ability as a black man to buy Barnes’ business won’t change the prejudices that have plagued the world, he said.

“You really want a French or Chinese billionaire or a Russian oligarch to buy the painting. This is how we make the international community understand what is happening and the African American narrative. This is how we fight prejudices. Even part of the black community has the idea that black art is for For blacks only. Then there’s the fear of a culture of appropriation if you buy black art and you’re not black. That’s all wrong. We have to flip the script on racism,” he said.

As the nation attempts to address race and its effects on society, there appears to be a concerted effort to amplify black artists, such as Barnes, who have not experienced the greatness of their work demanded by the larger community. A retrospective of his work was shown at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles in 2019.

Bill Perkins bought the icon in 1976

Bill Perkins has bought the iconic 1976 painting “The Sugar Shack” by Ernie Barnes for $15 million. The painting is on display at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston through December 31.

Karen Warren / Staff Photographer

“There has been a widely recognized correction in the process in the art market in evaluating the work of black artists in recent years,” said Alison de Lima Green, curator of Isabel Brown Wilson, Modern and Contemporary Art at the MFAH. “While this project is still under development, the sale of Barnes is part of a much larger trend,” he said.

“The Sugar Shack” is inspired by Barnes’ childhood when he slipped into a juke joint as a young teenager and watched men and women dance. Barnes made two versions of the painting. One in the early 1970s was used for Jay’s album and is now owned by actor and comedian Eddie Murphy. The second is a special commission. Perkins previously attempted to contact Murphy to purchase Barnes’ painting, but received no response.

Barnes, also a former professional soccer player, passed away in 2009.

Sugar Shack appeared in the opening credits of the movie “Good Times,” which followed the lives of a poor, black family in a Chicago apartment complex. Barnes did all the artwork for the series, which starred Jimmy Walker as the eldest son of JJ Evans. Talented artist.

“I actually own the painting that JJ drew in the show. I feel pride, but also a sense of responsibility. Because as a collector, it is our job to show the art market what is value and what future generations should appreciate, study and understand,” Perkins said.

“I want people to be curious and learn about the beauty that Barnes saw in the black community and the joy.”

joy.sewing@chron.com