The Black Lives Matter movement has time and time again highlighted the necessity of amplifying the voices of the black community. Many are working to do this through social media, universities, institutions and work places, inciting challenging conversations with superiors and peers alike.
An industry that is often overlooked, however, is the art industry. Despite being championed as the quasi-liberal saviour of black voices, they are still inherently very white-washed spaces. In fact, many art institutions in the US and UK have long been complicit in the silencing of black voices, and in addition to the facts and history, there is an astonishing number of artwork by the black community that confirms this. Some artworks strive for pure beauty, some are commentaries on political or social injustices and some are simply celebrations of identity. All of them are wonderful and give us a much-needed background into the art world from a new perspective.
So, the goal is to amplify black voices—for your convenience, we’ve collated 10 of our favourite black artists to help you get acquainted with some truly incredible work.
You’re probably already familiar with this artist from his infamous, unconventional portrait of Barack Obama. Fun fact: he is actually the first African-American artist to paint an official U.S. Presidential portrait. Wiley is not only a celebrated portrait painter, he is also the artist behind the Rumours of War statue in New York’s Times Square—an equestrian statue depicting an African-American man, made in response to the many Confederate Army brass statues erected around the United States.
Walker is a huge name in the industry, with a variety of disciplines under her belt including painter, silhouettist, print-maker, installation artist, and filmmaker. Her work is notorious for its candid exploration of race, sexuality, gender and violence—you really can’t talk about any of these things in contemporary art without mentioning Walker and her work. She is most famous for her black-and-white silhouette works that play on the theme of racial identity. However, most recently, her installation Fons Americanus at the Tate Modern in London turned heads—it’s the 13m tall fountain (shown below) inspired by the Victoria Memorial outside Buckingham Palace. The installation condemns the interconnected colonial history of America and Europe with Africa, specifically with regard to the slave trade and the glorification of the British Empire.
Kerry James Marshall
Born in 1955, Marshall’s work is a unique view into his childhood in Alabama during the 1950s and 1960s. Focusing on African-American life and history, this artist’s work is beautiful, narrative and emotional, with the focal central protagonists always being, in his words, “unequivocally, emphatically black”. His work explores the complexities of the Civil Rights Movement and its effect on everyday life for Black Americans and the fruits of his labour are these wonderful snapshots into a time capsule.
The Turner Prize-winning, Zanzibar-born artist has advocated to amplify the work of black artists her whole career, whether it be through her art, curation, activism or her lectures. Above, we see ‘The Carrot Piece’ (1985), which reflects how at the time of its conception, cultural institutions were guilty of performative inclusion—where art institutions only supported the work of black artists to solidify their status as ‘saviours’. In her words, black women were “being patronised… cajoled and distracted by silly games and pointless offers”. Since this piece, she has gone on to create an impressive portfolio that explores themes of cultural history and identity.
Paintsil is of mixed Welsh-Ghanaian background, and creates textile art that utilises weaves and braids (and, occasionally, her own hair) in addition to the traditional tapestry materials to create pieces that are equally as beautiful as they are politically charged. Honourable mention: In light of her time at Manchester School of Art coming to an end, she shared her favourite submitted piece (below). We recommend you read the caption—the context really makes it.
Rosales’ work is absolutely breathtaking; she is an oil painter that, in her own words, “explores black female empowerment through art that challenges ideological hegemony in contemporary society.” This particularly powerful piece is called Yemaya’s Ascension Into The Waters, and it is just one of the many beautiful oil paintings she has produced over the course of her career so far.
Butler is a textile artist that creates exquisite quilted portraits. The African-American subjects in her work are often subjects themselves—they are people immortalised in World War II-era photographs or even portraits from as far back as 1870-1910. The beauty of her work, however, is that it gives these forgotten subjects a new lease of life. It’s difficult to capture the essence of a photograph, especially when the subject is unnamed, but she does it by thoroughly researching the people of the era, looking for clues as to who they could have been, and how they would have dressed. The result? Beautiful, intricate, laborious art that celebrates its subjects.
Martin’s breathtaking work is the result of mixed media galore. Taking inspiration from vintage and family photos, she layers printmaking, drawing, sewing, collage and painting techniques to produce her powerful portraits. She highlights the absence of black bodies in Western art with her portraits, creating a new iconography for African Americans to reference.
Hamilton’s work is instantly recognisable—it is vibrant, fun and indisputably beautiful. Self-described as somewhere in between surrealism, impressionism, post-impressionism, neo-expressionism and pop culture, the artist paints the world as he sees it: “colourful and harmonious”.
Cave’s work is best explained through video. Famous for his Soundsuits, these fabric sculptures are staggeringly beautiful and intricate pieces that create, well, sound. The first Soundsuit initially came about as a response to the brutal beating of construction worker-turned writer Rodney King in 1991, where Cave fashioned sticks and twigs he had collected from the ground into a wearable suit that made sounds when worn. Since then, Cave has created over 500 Soundsuits, which are either displayed statically or used in choreography and captured through live performance, photography or video. His works are truly magnificent and worth looking into.
In fact, all of these artists are absolutely brilliant and produce truly incredible work that is worth studying further. That said, they are only a small handful of the plethora of black artists in the world—seek them out and hear their voices.
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