In honor of February being Black History month, I want to share a few of my favorite black and African American artists. As a museum nerd and art lover, I have a variety of artists that I’m drawn to. They can be well-known individuals or small names, someone whose works I studied or whose art I happened upon at a random museum, and I can fall in love with everything from their medium to their message.
I always want to support and showcase talent that may not get the recognition it deserves – which is unfortunately all too common with many minority and female artists. I hope this list encourages you to expand your artistic repertoire and seek out new art and artists that really resonate with you beyond the typical impressionism or pop art.
As a side note: Many of my descriptions have drawn from official pages devoted to these artists to give better background knowledge, but I’ve linked the original sites for more in-depth exploration of the artists!
(Two images I took of Basquiat’s collaboration with Warhol at the current Whitney exhibit.)
I’m kicking off this list with an iconic name because, yes, I absolutely love neo-expressionism and pop art and therefore love Basquiat’s work. I also just viewed a few of his stunning collaborative works with one of my other favorite artists, Andy Warhol, and the Whitney Museum in NYC. Basquiat’s powerful messages targeted social contradictions and constructs in a way that forced the viewer to really think and take in his multilayered meanings.
Basquiat began as a graffiti artist in Lower Manhattan then gained popularity and began creating paintings. His art focused on “suggestive dichotomies” such as wealth versus poverty and inner versus outer experience. He appropriated poetry, drawing, and painting, and married text and image, abstraction, figuration, and historical information mixed with contemporary critique. Basquiat used social commentary in his paintings as a “springboard to deeper truths about the individual,” addressing power structures and systems of racism. His poems were highly political in their direct criticism of colonialism and support for class struggle. He died at the young age of 27, but is still held in high regard as a creative genius and his work is showcased around the world. (Read more)
Edmonia Lewis was the first professional African-American sculptor in the US. Born in the 1840s to a free African American father and a Native American mother, by the 1860s she was determined to become a sculptor. She received small amounts of training, exposure, and experience in the arts, and then began producing medallion portraits of well-known abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison, Charles Sumner, and Wendell Phillips. With sales of her portrait busts of abolitionist John Brown and Boston hero Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, Lewis was able to finance her first trip to Europe in 1865 and she eventually settled in Rome.
Lewis specialized in subjects depicting her dual African-American and Native American ancestry, as well as portrait busts of abolitionists and patrons. Lewis also completed several mythological subjects, at least three religious subjects, and copies of Italian Renaissancesculpture. Unfortunately, many of her works have not survived. (Read more)
Augusta Savage started sculpting as a child in the 1900s using the clay that was part of the natural landscape in her Florida hometown. Eventually her talents took her to New York where she joined the burgeoning arts scene of the Harlem Renaissance. Her work was lauded and admired by contemporary black artists for how she skillfully challenged negative images and stereotypical depictions of black people.
One of her largest commissions were sculptures for the World’s Fair of 1939, inspired by “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a song often described as the black national anthem. “The Harp,” another work in the commission, depicted black singers as the ascending strings of that instrument. Regrettably, both pieces were destroyed when the fairgrounds were torn down. These weren’t the only two pieces lost – much of her work is gone since she could mostly afford to cast only in plaster. (Read more)
(“The Harp” by Augusta Savage.)
Betye Saar was born in 1926 in Los Angeles, California. She was a key figure in the Black Arts Movement and the feminist art movement of the 1960-70s, Saar’s distinct vision harmonizes the personal and the political.
Saar’s artwork addressed American racism and stereotypes head on. Over the years, she has transformed the representation of African Americans in American culture by recycling and reclaiming derogatory images such as Aunt Jemimas, Uncle Toms, sambos, and mammies to confront the continued racism in American society and create representations of strength and perseverance. One of her more famous works, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, confronted the myths and prejudice of the syrup bottle. You can see a current exhibition of her work at the New York Historical Society through May 27, 2019.
Jacob Lawrence is regarded as one of the most important artists of the 20th century, widely renowned for his modernist depictions of everyday life as well as epic narratives of African American history and historical figures. I first discovered Lawrence’s work through his “Migration Series” at the Phillips Collection in DC and then found out that this series is split with the MoMA in NYC.
Lawrence was born in 1917 in Atlantic City, New Jersey before moving with his family to Harlem in 1930, where he came into contact with some of the greatest artistic and intellectual minds of his generation. In the previous decade, Harlem had experienced the remarkably creative period known as the Harlem Renaissance, and the neighborhood was still the focal point of African-American culture. Before he was twenty years old, Lawrence had developed a powerful, concise style that expressed all of the vibrancy and pathos of the neighborhood and its occupants. (Read more)
I first encountered Renée Stout at my alma mater, Hamilton College. She showed her “Tales of the Conjure Woman” exhibit at my school’s Wellin Museum and I became immediately enamored with her “found object” style.
Stout is a Washington, D.C., artist whose paintings and sculptures have earned her international recognition. Her assemblages incorporate found objects, African symbols, remnants of stories and letters, and vintage photographs. Her career began with photo-realist paintings of everyday urban neighborhoods and then she developed mystical interests, delving into ancient African traditions, magic, and her vivid imagination. (Read more)
Karen Hampton is another artist I discovered through Hamilton’s Wellin Museum of Art. She showcased her “The Journey North” exhibit at Hamilton my Junior year and I was in awe of her creative process and delivery.
Hampton employs historical memory drawn from the stories of her family to shed new light on the colonial past. Her work, which uses new and traditional techniques and materials, also draws from her own experiences as a person of African, Caribbean, and American descent. Touching on issues of displacement and transience, Hampton uses both needle and loom to create works embedded with references to her ancestral heritage. (Read more)
Through these brief descriptions, I have only covered a handful of the amazing black artists present worldwide. I encourage you all to learn more about other artists through some of these helpful links:
- Blavity: 13 Incredible Black Artists Past and Present Everyone Should Know
- Huffpost: Exhibition Features 30 Of The Most Influential Contemporary Black Artists
- Blerds: 9 Famous Black Painters You Should Know
- African American Artists in the National Gallery of Art
- Black Art Story: 20 Greatest African-American Artists of All Time
- Black Art in America: 10 Emerging Black Male Artists to Collect
- Black Excellence: 10 Black Women Artists To Know
- Culture Type: Black Art History: 10 Children’s Books Illuminate the Lives of Important African American Artists and Photographers