Celebrating Black Art in America
February 7, 2022
The impact of visual arts should not be underestimated - art is a powerful medium to convey expressions, communications, and emotions, helping to shape culture, discourse, and representations in ways that can be both influential and accessible. From its roots, its movements, its artists, and its stories, Black art in America is engaging and provoking. With Black History Month as our backdrop, this article highlights only a small portion of the many works and perspectives in Black art.
There are many examples of Black artists throughout American history who have and will continue to make their mark on art and culture as we experience it, through their strengths of expression and fights against adversity. Names such as Moses Williams, famous for his cut-paper profiles, and David Drake, known for his inscribed storage pottery, were artists that were born into slavery (Mitchell, et al., n.d., pp. 8-11). Landscape painter Robert S. Duncan, recognized as the first internationally known African-American artist, was self-taught without formal training (Robinson, 2018). Henry Osawa Tanner, the first internationally acclaimed African-American painter, grew up in hardship, and is widely known for his depictions of African Americans in realist tradition (“African American Art,” n.d.; Robinson, 2018). He immortalized his mother, Sarah, who escaped slavery and helped found one of the first black women societies in the U.S., in his work Portrait of the Artist’s Mother (Mitchell, et al., n.d., pp. 12-13). The links between race and visual culture are continually established, developed, and reworked. And art has always provided a space to amplify expression and commentary.
The Harlem Renaissance (1918-1937) is widely considered the most significant explosion of Black art in American history, featuring waves of new Black artists, notable works, and varieties of Black expression that would have a powerful impact on black aesthetics, the artistic expression of racial identity, and the African American experience for decades to come (Mitchell, et al., n.d., pp. 14; Robinson, 2018). Influential artists from this period included Aaron Douglas, a leading figure in Harlem and in inspiration for geometrical modern art and design, William Henry Johnson, a blind artist who mastered a colorful, rhythmic, and strikingly simple style, Hale Woodruff, acclaimed for his poignant and stirring murals, etc., artists whom both made themselves in and made Harlem a cultural center of art (Mitchell, et al., n.d., pp. 14-16; Robinson, 2018; Hale Woodruff, n.d.). The Harlem Renaissance would go on to drive the art of following Black artists such Horace Pippin, a former soldier that used art as a statement about racial injustice, Jacob Lawrence, a painter and storyteller whose depictions of everyday life, both the fun and the ugly, such as in his Harlem Series, struck a cord with African American communities and the working class, Gordon Parks, a photojournalist that overcame poverty and discrimination and used photography to fight social and economic injustice, and Romare Bearden, Charles Alston, and James Wells, notable practitioners of Abstract Expressionism and realism (“African American Art,” n.d.; Mitchell, et al., n.d., pp. 18-23; Robinson, 2018).
Early African American movements, especially in the 1950s and 1960s, led to the proliferation of museums dedicated to the preservation and celebration of African American art and culture, such as the currently named African American Museum in Cleveland, African American Museum and Library in Oakland, and DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago (Robinson, 2018). From the Black Arts Movement of the late 1960s to 1970s, a symbol of black revitalization and liberation that pervaded and fueled the Black Power Movement and Civil Rights Movement of the time, rose artists such as Charles White, Jeff Donaldson, and Elizabeth Catlett, whose works highlighted African-Americans as individuals, workers, and liberators, producing powerful displays of Black pride and empowerment (Foster, 2014; Mitchell, et al., n.d., pp. 24-25; Robinson, 2018; Robinson, 2020). The Black Expressionism style that rose to prominence during this time in response to the post-war era, was popularized by abstract artists such as Sam Gilliam and Martin Puryear (“African American Art,” n.d.). The exploration of race, ethnicity, and identity has, and continues to be, a prominent force that shakes the art world, and Black art has and continues to shine in both the conceptual and figurative. It is through the effort, talent, and consciousness of every one of these artists and many others, that have inspired and paved the way for contemporary Black artists.
African American visual art has historically developed in parallel, often in isolation, to the white-dominated, mainstream culture in the U.S. Despite its enduring presence and rich history since the country’s conception, and the consistent creation of stylistically impressive and thought-provoking works, Black art has only recently found attention and recognition with America’s mainstream art scene, as demonstrated by the recent upticks in Black-centric exhibitions, shows, sales, and attention from critics (Cotter, 2021; LaRocca, n.d.; Robinson, 2018). The 1990s postmodern art era saw the notable emergence and establishment of marginalized artists in the mainstream, including black female artists such as Faith Ringgold, well-known for her story quilts whose protagonists have provided role models for young girls of color, Carrie Mae Weems, a photographer that explores the individual, family, and power dynamics, as seen in her Kitchen Table Series, and Lorna Simpson, whose works prominently feature African American woman and challenged perceptions of gender, identity, and history (Mitchell, et al., n.d., pp. 30-35; Robinson, 2018). For example, the unveiling of the National Portrait Gallery portraits of the Obamas, painted by artists Sherald and Kehinde Wiley, achieved record-breaking attendance at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (LaRocca, n.d.).
Black Art: In the Absence of Light, an HBO documentary directed by Sam Pollard, spotlights the contributions of Black artists in the contemporary art world, and discusses the long history of the “shutting out” of Black art from the mainstream art scene (Pollard, 2021). The documentary features the voices of painter and teacher David Driskell, Spelman College president Mary Schmidt, art historian and curator Maurice Berger, and other contemporary artists, dealers, and curators, that in the documentary, share their perspectives on the history of neglect and gatekeeping of Black art, and of the recent ongoing corrections in the art world (Cotter, 2021; Pollard, 2021). Today’s contemporary artists, such as Kara Walker, Fred Wilson, Radcliffe Bailey, Jordan Casteel, Kerry James Marshall, Kehinde Wiley, Amy Sherland, Paul Rucker, and Theaster Gates, and many, many others, including various youth artists, continue the tradition of their predecessors in pushing the frontiers of art, of capturing distinctly African-American experiences, and of exploring social, cultural, economic, and identity issues through visual art, rising quickly in the art world from the groundwork that has been laid by a couple centuries of struggles and successes of African-American artists, gallerists, dealers, and scholars (LaRocca, n.d.; Pollard, 2021; “African American Art,” n.d.).
Although the mainstream art world is now finally now digging through the treasure trove that is Black art, Black artists and the art world in general, continue to deal with issues of representation, cultural marginalization, and financial inequities, among many other things, as Black artists continue to fight for control over their art and how they are seen and represented. (Cotter, 2021; Pollard, 2021). Even with its growing successes in the mainstream, black galleries, dealers, and artists - the black communities - have yet to reap their fair share of financial benefits from their art. For the most part, the art world is still disproportionately dominated by white galleries (LaRocca, n.d.).
For Black History Month and all throughout the year, youth can show support for Black artists and the communities and places that provide spaces for Black artists to be heard.
Check out some more contemporary Black artists:
Discover the history and tradition of Black art:
“Some of the most important work being made right now—abstract and figurative—is by black Americans… Great art is bred where the artist is closest to their core humanity, and I think sometimes adversity breeds that” - Christopher Bedford.
“This is Black art. And it matters. And it’s been going on for two hundred years. Deal with it” - Maurice Berger in Black Art: In the Absence of Light.
African American Art. (n.d.) Oxford University Press. Retrieved from https://www.oxfordartonline.com/page/african-american-art
Cotter, Holland. (2021). ‘Black Art: In the Absence of Light’ Reveals a History of Neglect and Triumph. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/08/arts/design/black-art-hbo-review.html
LaRocca, Lauren. (n.d.) The Color Line. Baltimore Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.baltimoremagazine.com/section/artsentertainment/black-artists-finally-receiving-recognition-in-mainstream-art-world/
Foster, Hannah. (2014). The Black Arts Movement (1965-1975). BlackPast. Retrieved from https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/black-arts-movement-1965-1975/
Hale Woodruff. (n.d.). Smithsonian. Retrieved from https://americanart.si.edu/artist/hale-woodruff-5477
Mitchell, Rebecca, et al. (n.d.) Represent: 200 Years of African American Art - A Resource for Students and Teachers. Philadelphia Museum of Art. https://philamuseum.org/doc_downloads/education/ex_resources/Represent.pdf
Pollard, Sam. (Director). (2021). Black Art: In the Absence of Light [Documentary]. HBO.
Robinson, Shantay. (2018). A Very Abbreviated Version of Black Art History. BLACK ART IN AMERICA™. Retrieved from https://www.blackartinamerica.com/index.php/2018/11/20/a-very-abbreviated-version-of-black-art-history/#:~:text=While%20the%2019th%20century,obtain%20degrees%20in%20the%20arts
Robinson, Shantay. (2020). The Aesthetics of the Black Arts Movement. BLACK ART IN AMERICA™. Retrieved from https://www.blackartinamerica.com/index.php/2020/08/24/the-aesthetics-of-the-black-arts-movement/