Who Are the Biggest Contemporary Black Artists ?

August 27, 2016

The cultural identity is defined by both its own members' living experience and the search for a definition and the perceptions of others, especially those in power.[1] How does the racial identity of an artist affect the way they create art and the perception of it by the masses?

While some black artists desire to be referred to simply as "artists" without a qualifying racial identifier, others make their racial identity and the black experience the center of their practice, challenging the established cultural stereotypes and generalizations.

During the Harlem Renaissance in the United States, a cultural movement in the 1920s and 1930s that brought the explosion of African-American literature, music and art, African-American artists aimed to re-conceptualize their identity and represent their heritage and tradition with a sense of cultural pride.[2]

Throughout the history of the 20th-century art, black artists approached the subject of their own identity in various different ways.[3] While some artists aimed to present black experience and culture through narrative painting in a straightforward and sincere way, others created archetypes who stand-in to represent a larger experience.

Artists such as Betye Saar and Faith Ringgold chose to confront racism and inequality directly by appropriating and re-contextualizing imagery from culture to make the oppression visible. On the other hand, some artists tend to completely reinvent the history by producing new contexts for examining the black culture and identity.

This racial and cultural dialogue has not ended, as the never-ending discourse of racial issues in our society keeps lurking in the background of every social and cultural aspect. Today's artists of African descent still discuss and confront issues regarding race and art, having to reconcile their identity as seen within their own culture with the perception of the mainstream one.[4]

Given the complexity of identity in a global era, the art practice of black artists of the present-day shows there is no universal way to approach the subject. We have compiled a list of black artists who are contributing to the ongoing conversation about race and representation.[5]

Featured images: Toyin Odutola Artwork, via cinemakenya.com; Kerry James Marshall - Untitled, 2009, via artnxtleveljournal.com; Kehinde Wiley - Femme Piquée Par Un Serpent II; Carrie Mae Weems - Family Pictures and Stories 1978-84, via orartswatch.org

Kara Walker - Illustrating the History of the American South

An African-American conceptual artist, Kara Walker is best known for the wall-sized cut paper silhouettes. These vignettes that she creates illustrate the history of the American South exploring the racism. Drawing from various sources from historical novels to slave testimonials, Walker uses imagery of mammies, pickninnies, sambos and other racial stereotypes. The silhouette present a powerful metaphor for the stereotype which she describes as something that "says a lot with very little information". Her work is often considered controversial, as the audience initially described it as offensive. She invites the public to explore the origins of racial inequality, but also the vast social and economic inequalities that persist in America.

Featured images: Kara Walker, via ajc.com; Kara Walker installation view, via sikkemajenkinsco.com

Kehinde Wiley - Exploring the Modes of Representation

Working in portraiture, the American artist Kehinde Wiley combines traditional formats and motifs with modern modes of representation. Firmly situating himself within art history's portrait tradition, he selects pieces from old masters such as Rubens or Titian and replaces the subjects with handsome young black men. His representation of urban black men employs the visual rhetoric of the heroic, powerful and majestic. Often blurring the boundaries between traditional and modern modes of representation, he emphasizes the established portrayal of masculinity and physicality connected to the representation of black young men. Initially based on the photographs taken on the streets of Harlem, his practice now includes models found in urban landscapes all around the world. Exploring the complicated socio-political histories, he places young black men within the field of power.

Featured images: Kehinde Wiley, via wsj.com; Kehinde Wiley – Kern Alexander Study I, 2011

Chris Ofili - Exploring the Black Experience

The work of the British artist Chris Ofili is characterized by rhythmic patterning of painterly and cultural elements. Playing with ideas of beauty and carrying messages about black culture and heritage, his art works on many levels. Vibrant, technically complex and meticulously executed, his pieces are concerned with issues of black identity and experience. Incorporating racial stereotypes to challenge them, he deploys inventive figuration rendered in paint and collaged materials such as glitter, magazines cut-outs, and resin. One of his best-known pieces Afrodizzia from 1996 references the stereotype of black sexual potency, with magazine cut-out faces that are given 1970s Afro hairstyles. In his earlier pieces, Ofili often incorporated elephant dung.

Featured images: Chris Ofili, via newyorker.com; Chis Ofili exhibition, via terremoto.mx

Kerry James Marshall - Reworking the Canon

Using painting, sculptural installations, collage, video and photograph, Kerry James Marshall comments on the story of black identity both in the United States and in Wester Art. Focusing on black subjects historically excluded from the artistic canon, he explores the issue of race through a wide range of imagery. Throughout his complex and compelling practice, Marshall combines a wide range of pictorial traditions to counter stereotypical representations of black people in society. Critically examining the Western canon through its most archetypal forms, he reworks the historic tableau, landscape, genre painting and portraiture, but also the muralist tradition and the comic book. Addressing this "vacuum in the image bank", he makes the invisible visible.

Be sure to check out works by Kerry James Marshall on our marketplace!

Featured images: Kerry James Marshall, via artsy.net; Kerry James Marshall - In The Tower, via huffingtonpost.com

David Hammons - The Provocateur

The work of David Hammons often reflects his commitment to the civil rights and Black Power movements. He first came to prominence in the 1970s with a series of prints made using his own body. Drawing on an eclectic range of tactics and techniques, he injects sociological content into his art, commenting on the position of African-Americans within the dominant culture. A provocateur par excellence, his strategies for engaging with the system have made him a legendary figure in the world of conceptual art. Some of his pieces explore the association of basketball and young black men, commenting on the almost impossible aspirations of sports stardom as a way out of the ghetto. In his 1993 piece In the Hood, Hammons nailed the hood from a sweatshirt up on the wall as a representation of a young and black male, evoking lynching and hanging.

Featured images: David Hammons, via heathermeyerratken.blogspot.com; David Hammons exhibition, via mnuchingallery.com

Lorna Simpson - The Conceptual Photographer

The artist Lorna Simpson has approached photography as a conceptual medium. Exploring the experience of African American women, she creates her pieces from both original photographs and found images from eBay and flea markets. She came to prominence in the 1980s with large-scale pieces that combine photography and text and challenged established concepts of gender, identity, race, culture, and memory. She explored various media and techniques from two-dimensional photographs and installations to video pieces. Her iconic 1994 piece Wigs (Portfolio) places and emphasis on the social and political implications of African hairstyles and textures. As a comprehensive study of hairpieces, this work underscores the wig as a tool of physical transformation. Her narratives are often open to various interpretations.

Featured images: Lorna Simpson, via rebloggy.com; Lorna Simpson - Five Day Forecast, 1988, via inhalmag.com

Carrie Mae Weems - A Socially Motivated Artist

A socially motivated artist, Carrie Mae Weems has created a complex body of work that invites on the contemplation of race, gender and justice. Her early pieces were more documentary and autobiographical, while her later series are more conceptual and philosophically complex. She employs a variety of means and addresses a variety of issues, but all of her pieces are characterized by the commitment to a better understanding of the present through examining of the past and identity. While she is primarily focused on African American subjects, she invites the people of color to stand for their human rights. Lately, she has broadened her views to include global struggles for equality and justice. Her groundbreaking Kitchen Table Series from 1990 tells a story of one woman's life in the intimate setting of her kitchen, as a primary space traditionally associated with women's role in the society.

Featured images: Carrie Mae Weems, via macfound.org; Carrie Mae Weems From the Kitchen Table Series, 1990, via beautone.tumblr.com

Yinka Shonibare - A Postcolonial Hybrid

The Nigerian-born artist Yinka Shonibare explores colonialism and postcolonialism within the modern context of globalization. His artistic practice is diverse and he works in painting, sculpture, photography, film and performance. Creating pieces that explore race, class and the construction of cultural identity, he makes a sharp political commentary of the interrelationships between Africa and Europe and their economic and political histories. He describes himself as a postcolonial hybrid. Looking at Western art history and literature, he questions our collective modern identity. Additionally, he explores the meaning of cultural and national definitions. Since 1994, the key material in his work are brightly coloured African fabrics. Since he buys them at the Brixton market in London, these fabrics "prove a crossbred cultural background quite of their own."

Featured images: Yinka Shonibare, via atelierlog.blogspot.com; Yinka Shonibare - Last Supper (After Leonardo), 2013, via fabulouslyfeminist.com

Hank Willis Thomas - Exploring Advertising Generalisations

A conceptual artist living and working in New York City, Hank Willis Thomas centers his work around themes related to perspective identity, commodity, media and popular culture. He often incorporates recognizable advertising icons and imagery in his work. Commenting on advertising, he stated: “Part of advertising’s success is based on its ability to reinforce generalizations developed around race, gender and ethnicity which are generally false, but [these generalizations] can sometimes be entertaining, sometimes true, and sometimes horrifying.” His most famous pieces are series B®anded and Unbranded: Reflections in Black by Corporate America 1968-2008, a work created from appropriated advertising imagery. Inspired by artists such as Carrie Mae Weems and Lorna Simpson, he uses the language and familiar imagery to explore issues that are often overlooked in our modern society.

Featured images: Hank Willis Thomas, via interviewmagazine.com; Hank Willis Thomas - Raise Up, 2014, via nsuartmuseum.org

Toyin Odutola - Painting Black on Black

The Nigerian-born artist Toyin Odutola explores identity and the sociopolitical concept of skin color through her pen and ink drawings. She draws from her personal journey of having been born in Nigeria and moving to the United States. Treating skin as topography, Odutola undermines notions of blackness in her drawings by exploring what it means to look or be perceived black. Wether depicting white or black people, she paints them all in black ink. Describing her practice, she explained: "I’m doing black on black on black, trying to make it as layered as possible in the deepness of the blackness to bring it out." She also explores the cultural diversity and ambition of American cities using charcoal and pastels.


  1. Anonymous, Racial Identity in Art: The Black Aesthetics, Visual Tidbits For the Culturally Curious [August 26,2016]
  2. Anonymous, Harlem Renaissance, Wikipedia [August 26, 2016]
  3. Gabel, J., Race and Identity, Jonathan Gable [August 26,2016]
  4. Du Bois, W.E.B. (2015), The Souls of Black Folk, Yale University Pres; Revised ed. edition 1903 [August 26,2016]

Featured images: Toyin Odutola, via natashawheat.com; Toyin Odutola Artwork, via cinemakenya.com. All images used for illustrative purposes only.

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