For too long the Black artist’s voice was silenced, but recent generations of Black artists have fought their way to acclaim with a powerful combination of incredible talent and meaningful concepts. At last some Black artists are taking the art world by storm, while also reminding contemporary collectors of the challenges of Black history by confronting its injustices in their work.
From the days of slavery’s abolition in the nineteenth century, Black artists have reckoned with the injustices of racism and prejudice that have caused countless scars. Nineteenth-century portrait painter, Joshua Johnson (1765-1830), was one of the first Black artists to achieve acclaim. Meanwhile, Edmonia Lewis (1844-1907) achieved international success by the dawn of the twentieth century for her Neoclassicism-inspired sculptures that were early works to prominently place the Black body in a classical artistic context.
As the Black artistic community developed, messages conveyed through artwork became more significant. Aaron Douglas’s (1898-1979) striking abstract paintings of the 1920s and 1930s tempered hope and optimism with the realities of racial injustice; meanwhile, Lois Mailou Jones (1905-1998) channeled the energy of later mid-century expression into her works infused with references to African tribal art. This drive for innovation grew in intensity to eventually result in the art world phenomenon Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose far-too-brief yet brilliant flame catapulted street art to the fine art realm in the 1980s.
Five of the most influential living Black artists and their work
The most influential Black artists working today have held up this tradition not only in their incredible talent but also in their ability to draw attention to the subjugation of the Black body (and thereby Black artist) from the days of slavery to the modern moment. Let’s take a closer look at some of the key voices.
Born in the prime of the era known as the “Harlem Renaissance,” Faith Ringgold is one of the pioneers of art that centered on the Black experience. She turned to political themes in some of her first major painting series in the 1970s, but her quilted works of the following decade drew international attention. These panels comprised quilted components, which Ringgold saw as a medium wrapped up in contradictions. On the one hand, quilting was considered a less art or craft relegated to women; on the other, quilting became one of few ways for Black slaves to pass down their family heritage. Ringgold built on these associations, layering on to of these quilted works narratives and imagery tainted with racist and colonial connotations. Her first, Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemima? (1983), for example, called attention to the racist stereotypes that dominated American culture and recast these figures with a new sense of independence. Accordingly, Ringgold empowered an entire generation of rising Black artists to follow suit.
Driven by a mission to reclaim both a space for and the beauty of the Black body, Kerry James Marshall has become an international sensation with his striking compositional style. His subjects have run the gamut, from his 1990s “Garden Project” painting series, in which he drew attention to the contrasts between the visions and realities of the housing projects of Chicago, to his more recent work where scenes of everyday life are interspersed with subtle references to the Black body and its presence (or, absence) throughout art history. Marshall works to bring attention to such issues both within the gallery space and writ large, creating monumental murals like Rushmore (2017) in the heart of downtown Chicago.
Nick Cave’s practice is centered in textiles, but on an impressive scale: one of his most iconic creations is the Soundsuit, a wearable armature first conceived in the 1990s. He has made numerous Soundsuits that are covered in a variety of everyday fabrics and materials. Inspired in part by the brutalities of the attack on Rodney King, Cave sought a means to express how helpless and insignificant one can feel at times of such violence. He likened these feelings to discarded objects, so he began to collect found materials of all kinds to adorn his suits. The variety of materials incorporated means that, when worn, the suits become a means of both movement and sound. Accordingly, exhibitions of Cave’s soundsuits give the viewer the chance to observe the intricacy of his work up close; the real treat, though, is to see these suits activated through performance. A prime example was his 2013 “Heard NY,” where he choreographed a dance by a troupe in soundsuits within the spaces of New York City’s Grand Central station.
A graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, Kara Walker changed the conversation over Black art in the 1990s when she revived the Victorian-era silhouette as a means to make a direct contrast: not only do her works in black and white allude to racial tensions, but her modifications of these silhouettes from ideal profiles to intense, often gruesome, references, reveals a body of work aimed at eliciting visceral reactions among her viewers. Her silhouettes envelop those who enter galleries of Walker’s work, thereby forcing a very direct confrontation with the violence and trauma of the Black experience in America’s past. Since her rise to success, Walker has expanded her practice to include sculptural installations, including her controversial yet captivating A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby (2014) installed in a sugar-factory-turned-exhibition space in Brooklyn.
One of the most innovative artists working today, Los Angeles-born painter and sculptor Kehinde Wiley has made his career around his powerful paintings that interject within Western art history’s past classics references to contemporary Black culture. Famous figures are recast as Wiley’s “everyman,” presenting for the viewer very modern figures in historicized presentations. For example, Napoleon Leading His Army Over the Alps (2005) updated Jacques Louis David’s famed nineteenth-century portrait of Napoleon by recasting the protagonist as a hip young Black man on horseback. By giving these figures a sense of place in his paintings, Wiley directly defies the lack of Black bodies in art history while also addressing relevant issues such as colonialism, racism, and appropriation. Seemingly on a continual ascent to artistic stardom, Wiley’s latest accolades include serving as portrait painter for former President Barack Obama.
Embrace the bounty of Black artists
These five names only scratch the surface of the incredibly diverse and prolific communities of Black artists working today. They nevertheless begin to showcase a remarkable diversity of perspectives. These voices have helped to define a generation of artists and have initiated crucial conversations that are sure to inspire both young artists and avid collectors.