Throughout the history of the 20th-century art, black artists approached the subject of their own identity in various different ways. While some of them 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.
Honoring the Black Lives Matter movement and the ongoing fight for social justice, we bring together a selection of works by black artists who have significantly contributed to the history of art.
Featured image: Faith Ringgold - Groovin' High, 1996. All images courtesy of their respective galleries.
Considered one of the most important American artists of the 20th century, Romare Bearden depicted aspects of African-American culture in a Cubist style. Although he worked in a range of media, he is best known for his collages and photomontages showing the African-American culture and experience in creative and thought provoking ways.
Published by the University of Pennsylvania Press, this silkscreen celebrates a tender relationship between a mother and a child
Over the past five decades, the American artist Faith Ringgold has been challenging perceptions of African American identity and gender inequality through the lenses of the feminist and the civil rights movements. She is celebrated for her narrative quilts, telling stories of her life and those of others in the black community.
Groovin' High from 1996 depicts a crowded dance hall bordered by quilted hand-dyed fabrics, evoking the artist's memories of Sunday afternoon dances at the Savoy and her connection to the African American communities of her native Harlem.
American artist Glenn Ligon is best known for his multi-media art practice that frequently utilizes text as a way to create intertextual encounters between viewers and the work. Combining his formal art education with complexities of his personal history, he creates emotionally charged pieces that convey challenging messages and subcontexts.
The work Study for negro Sunshine II, #31 comes from a series of prints in which the phrase is repeated over and over again in various textures and densities. The phrase itself comes from the book Three Lives by Gertrude Stein, where the author invokes the enigmatic phrase repeatedly throughout the book as if it were a common aphorism. Invented by Stein herself, referencing the supposed laid-back, mellow countenance of African Americans post-slavery.
A contemporary African-American multimedia artist, Mickalene Thomas gained prominence for her vibrant collaged paintings composed of rhinestones acrylic and enamel. In her works, she makes references to Western art history, the Harlem Renaissance and popular culture, exploring topics related to race, gender and sexuality.
In this work, a black woman is staged in a decor saturated with colorful themes referring to the work of the eponymous sculptor Alexander Calder, famous for his mobiles. Here, the artist proposes an eminently political commentary on the invisibility of racialized bodies within a traditionally exclusive history of art.
Theaster Gates focuses on space theory and land development, sculpture and performance. He describes himself as equal parts artist, bureaucrat, and hustler. Addressing topics of social justice, gentrification, and urban renewal, he seeks to bridge the gap between art and life.
Pottery and ceramics play a big part in Gates’s work. The piece Untitled from 2004 is made of glazed stoneware.
An American abstract painter, Sam Gilliam is best known for his works that test the boundaries of color, form, texture, and the canvas itself. One of the great innovators in postwar American painting, he remained committed to abstraction during the height of the civil rights movement.
Ribboned II belongs to his earlier works where he depicted geometric abstractions on traditionally stretched canvases that resemble those of the Washington Color School painters of the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s.
Ethiopian-born and the US-based artist, Julie Mehretu layers marks, images and mediums to construct immersive large-scale works that impose themselves upon the observer. Each work is gestural and energetic, building a network of lines, marks and colors that unify into a single, seamless composition.
Untitled (Pulse) from 2013 layers heavily intersected lines of color, topographical elements, and geometric renderings. At the same time, the work layers a range of influences and art historical references.
The British contemporary artist Chris Ofili creates work characterized by rhythmic patterning of painterly and cultural elements. Working on many levels, his work plays with ideas of beauty and carrying messages about black culture and heritage. He addresses subjects of black identity and experience, incorporating racial stereotypes to challenge them.
A drypoint with aquatint and spitbite on Shikoku Surface Gampi paper, The Healer from 2009 possesses a reflective quality, featuring the abundance of nature-inspired by his visit to the Caribbean.
A self-taught American artist, Purvis Young is best known for his distinctive expressionist vision of urban life based upon the experience of African Americans in the south. Utilizing scrap lumber and plywood that he scavenges from the streets and vacant lots of Overton, the historically black neighborhood, he painted what he saw with his "inner eyes," transcending the misery that surrounds him.
Created around 1990, Jazz Angel is an expressionist acrylic on wood.
Re-examining photography as a conceptual medium, the Brooklyn-born African-American artist and photographer Lorna Simpson creates multidisciplinary and complex work that raises questions about the nature of representation, identity, gender, race and history. Often associated with postcolonial and feminist critique, Simpson’s work seeks to explicate the ways in which race and gender shape human interactions.
In this work, the artist comments on the historical fact that African America women were rarely glamorized in Hollywood productions of the 1940s. Their role in films was most often limited to that of household servants.