Each month of the year we raise awareness or celebration for a cause, organization, moment in history, or group. February is Black History Month. This is both a time for reflection, education, and growth as a culture and as individuals.
The art world, classically speaking, is a microscope of society, led and dictated by talented artists who are primarily white, males. As we continue to grow as a society, under represented demographics continue to have their voices speak louder socially which radiates throughout the arts.
Here are some of the black artists who represent and demonstrate not only immense talent, creativity, and ingenuity, but who are changing the physical makeup and landscape of the art world by telling their stories, history, and individual culture through imagery.
1763 - 1832
While much of Joshua Johnson’s history has not been recorded and documented, even his last name is debated, he is known as “the first professional African American artist to work in the United States.” Johnson was born into slavery and pre-dates other renowned African American artists by decades. He created within the world of portraiture restricted to painting white men, women, and children because he was a slave who later obtained his freedom “in 1782 after completing an apprenticeship with a Baltimore blacksmith”. While he likely could not paint anything he wanted, Joshua Johnson’s extraordinary talent shines through as a part of his legacy that undoubtably paved and shaped the way for other African American artists to follow and pursue their passion.
1901 - 1979
Delaney is an artist who sits firmly in the Harlem Renaissance artistic movement. Named after the area it was born from, the Harlem Renaissance thrived in New York City and Beauford Delaney is undoubtably one of the most important Black artists of the 20th century. His work was focused on people who sat on the “fringes of society” from the Great Depression poverty, to homelessness and black disenfranchisement. Delaney’s expressive and often, non-representational style pushed back on tradition and allowed his style to shine.
1917 - 2000
Lawrence’s distinct style that balances and plays on the edge of cubism is full of imagery depicting Black culture and history. He featured "figures in the struggle for black liberation, such as Harriet Tubman" and the "Depression-era flight of African Americans" from poor southern cities to the north. While his subjects differ, Lawrence's use of tempera paint, unique cubism inspired style, and his color scheme are timeless, binding his work with classic African art and modern day black history and culture.
1944 - Present
El Anatusi is a globally recognized mixed media artist who’s artwork graces the walls of the top art museums all around the world; from the Tate Modern in London to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Born in Ghana, El Anatusi’s artwork repurposes discarded materials that he would see around him such as discarded liquor bottle caps. Both a champion for our earth and a pioneer for African artists, El Anatusi is the embodiment of a deeply talented, creative, and forwarding thinking artists who has reflected his experience, life, and physical being into his work.
1960 - 1988
Basquait, an American artist with roots in both Haiti and Puerto Rico, is an artist who is well-know for his distinct style composed of obsessive scribbles. Basquiat reflected his own experiences and culture into his work creating powerful social commentary on contemporary issues with a particular lens on racial injustice and power. He achieved national recognition by the time he was 20, exhibiting his artwork along side handfuls of established artists, and called Andy Warhol his mentor. Basquiat once said, “I don’t think about art while I work. I think about life.”
1961 - Present
Mark Bradford is a contemporary artist based on Los Angeles. His abstract paintings arranged in grid link structures are a balance between both collage and paint and are both is most popular and well known pieces he has created. It is impossible to look at his work and not be intrigued by the “laborious surfaces” he packs with detail. While his images are frequently abstracted, they conceptual ideas are centered around race, poverty, and atrocities. Bradford said, “For me, its’s always a detail - a detail that points to a larger thing.”
Kara Elizabeth Walker
1969 - Present
Kara Walker is a contemporary American artist who is best known for her distinct large full room installations composed of black paper cut outs. Her artwork reflects “themes of African American racial identity” with a style that balances between mural arts and traditional African illustration. Walker creates immersive spaces by the addition of light that reflects the viewer’s shadows into the piece allowing it to move, grow, and change constantly. While Walker’s artwork can be perceived was somber, she said, “I didn’t want a completely passive viewer. I wanted to make work where the viewer wouldn’t walk away.”
1977 - Present
While Kehinde Wiley is most popularly know for his portrait of former president Barack Obama which hangs in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, his naturalist paintings of black people rival the best portrait artists in history. He works with traditional portraiture and motifs but incorporates modern figures and ideas. Wiley’s artwork is breathtaking and complex, both in detail and idea. He had said, “How do we go beyond the media stereotypes about national identity? I don’t really think about myself as a young gay black American, nor do I interface with my Brazilian or Mexican or Jewish friends that way.”
These artists have fought against adversity and racial injustice to prove that they can and should be more than a footnote in the art history books. From modern artists like Kehinde Wiley to Joshua Johnson, an artist born into slavery, the breadth and complexity of what they have created and achieved is something to celebrate.