In the 1970s family sitcom Good Times, the character J.J., played by comedian Jimmie Walker, was the oldest child in a working-class Chicago family who, amid his shenanigans, was also an aspiring painter. Much of the series took place in the family’s apartment, so J.J.’s paintings would often appear on easels in the family’s living room. But it wasn’t until I was older that I realized those paintings were created by a real artist named Ernie Barnes (1938–2009).
One work in particular, Barnes’s 1976 painting The Sugar Shack, has been etched into the collective memory of Black folks for decades. The painting made its broadcast debut in season four of the Good Times opening and closing credits, and the original also served as the cover art for Marvin Gaye’s sensual studio album I Want You, released that same year.
In The Sugar Shack, elongated Black figures fill a dance hall to the brim, moving soulfully to the silent rhythm. All of the characters, vivacious women and men all stylishly dressed, dance with their eyes closed. While its core memory was taken from Barnes’s childhood in the South, the image has come to exemplify the immersive and energetic experience of Black culture.
Barnes was born and raised in Jim Crow–era North Carolina, where his working-class parents exposed him to the arts in his childhood. When he went to college on a football scholarship, he majored in art until he was drafted into the NFL. His life as an artist revolved extensively around his desire to paint scenes from his memory and his everyday life. Although Barnes was not widely known in the art world, he has remained a steady influence for many contemporary Black painters.
The past several years have marked significant posthumous strides for Barnes’s legacy. A 2019 solo retrospective exhibition at the California African American Museum (CAAM) in Los Angeles spanned 50 years of his practice. Recently, a second version of The Sugar Shack was sold at Christie’s Auction House for a whopping $15 million to local film producer and collector Bill Perkins, who loaned the painting to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, for public viewing.
Perkins called the acquisition “the realization of a childhood dream” during its Houston debut in June, saying, “I know that Ernie Barnes’s masterwork will be as inspirational for all those who will see it as it has been for us.”
Now, Houstonians can experience The Sugar Shack on view in the MFAH’s new Kinder building through the end of the year. It’s the perfect visit for adults who want to relive the heat of a ’70s juke joint or who simply wish to share a cultural relic with future generations.