I’ve been spending a lot of time on Tik Tok (aren’t we all), and I came across a few pieces of content highlighting Black artists. They were from art history majors so I’m not surprised that they were sharing individuals like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Carrie Mae Williams, as they should since they’re a key part of art history.
However, I wanted to share a list of Black artists that span all the way from established to emerging. Artists whose work you can see in a museum, some of them you can even see in their studio. Some of them you can even buy (their work going for thousands instead of millions). I understand this list isn’t comprehensive by any means and is completely biased towards the artists whose work has spoken to ME over the years, but I think their work will speak to you as well.
I’ve listed the artists in alphabetical order and have shared any detail I think is helpful in describing why I think they’re amazing as well as where you can learn more. I know I've left out some artists I'd like to include even as I'm publishing this, so I'll try to keep it update the best I can. Also if you are one of these artists and for whatever reason do not identify as Black and would like to be removed please let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Adam Pendleton (born 1984, Richmond, Virginia) is an American conceptual artist known for his multi-disciplinary practice, involving painting, silkscreen, collage, video and performance.” (source)
His most recognizable work are his black and white ‘text’/graffiti silkscreens and paintings. He was the youngest artist to sign with Pace Gallery since the 70’s - at the age of 28.
“Alex Gardner is a figure painter working in acrylic to make intense and memorable scenes. In these paintings, the artist charges the familiar with poignancy, highlights the details as important, and paints figures that all genders and races could see themselves in. Mimicking snippets of classical painting—from an El Greco hand to a Pietà carry, a crucifixion foot, a Michelangelo muscle group—he is not just inserting his contemporary identity into art history, but also opening up these art historical perspectives for all viewers to connect with.” (source)
If her name sounds familiar, it’s probably because she painted First Lady Michelle Obama’s portrait that now hangs in the National Gallery….no big deal.
“She is best known for her portrait paintings. Her choices of subjects look to enlarge the genre of American art historical realism by telling African-American stories within their own tradition. She is well known for using grisaille to portray skin tones in her work as a way of challenging the concept of color-as-race. Her style is simplified realism, involving staged photographs of her subjects.” (source)
Sherald is represented by Hauser & Wirth gallery globally.
“A traditionally trained painter, Niles is heavily influenced by art history, specifically history painting and portraiture. The poses of his characters and attention to light call to mind classical compositions yet Niles disrupts these standards by using a highly saturated color palette over orange and blue grounds. Niles has removed neutral colors, blacks, whites, and browns from his palette in order to demonstrate the complex skin tones of his subjects while adding a noble glow.” - Rachel Uffner (source)
“Working across painting, drawing, sculpture, photography, performance, and installation, Barthélémy Toguo addresses enduring and immediately relevant issues of borders, exile, and displacement. At the core of his practice is the notion of belonging, which stems from his dual French/Cameroonian nationality. Through poetic, hopeful, and often figural gestures connecting nature with the human body, Toguo foregrounds concerns with both ecological and societal implications. Recently, his works have been informed by movements and humanitarian tragedy including #BlackLivesMatter and the refugee crisis.” (source)
Carrie Mae Weems
Considered one of the most influential contemporary American artists, Carrie Mae Weems has investigated family relationships, cultural identity, sexism, class, political systems, and the consequences of power.” (source)
“The Kitchen Table Series (1990), is one of Weems’ most seminal works, and widely considered one of the most important bodies of contemporary photography. The series, for which Weems herself posed as the main subject, is set at a woman’s kitchen table—a domestic stage—revealing intimate moments of her life as the story unfolds.” (source)
Weems is represented by Jack Shainman Gallery.
Chris Ofili is a British artist and winner of the Turner Prize in 1998.
“His works—vibrant, symbolic, and frequently mysterious—draw upon the lush landscapes and local traditions of the island of Trinidad, where he has lived since 2005. Employing a diverse range of aesthetic and cultural sources, including, among others, Zimbabwean cave paintings, blaxploitation films, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and modernist painting, Ofili’s work investigates the intersection of desire, identity, and representation.” (source)
Ofili is represented by David Zwirner Gallery.
Cinga Samson is a South African painter, whose “oil works on canvas manifest echoes of what he describes as the superstitions and spirituality integral to his upbringing in the town of Ethembeni and its surrounding countryside. Desire, aspiration, and celebration of identity drive much of his work, for which he draws inspiration from fashion, heritage, and the works of Paul Gauguin and Andrew Wyeth, among others.” (source)
"The Cape Town–based artist [Cinga Samson] sets out to create a positive depiction of his generation of youth in South Africa, and the continent at large. It was in reaction to feeling frustrated and preoccupied with the political climate." - Whitewall
“Addressing contemporary American culture, biblical parables and Ashanti iconography from his native Ghana, Egyir’s work explores questions of ethics, honesty, identity and the social-psychology of community. Monumental, uncanny and often satirically grandiose, the paintings combine the graphic sensuality of Pop Art with the far-reaching narratives of history painting.” (source)
Curtis Talwst Santiago
Curtis Talwst Santiago is a Canadian-Trinidadian artist, who is known for his abstract figurative drawings as well as “miniature social scenes constructed inside jewelry boxes.”
"I’m not American, but as a person of color living here, this work offered me a way to get out of America, to explore this imagination and move away from all the trauma art I was making as a reaction to what seemed like weekly police killings." - Curtis Talwst Santiago for BOMB
“Cy Gavin is an American artist that lives and works in New York. Gavin often incorporates unusual materials in his paintings such as tattoo ink, pink sand, diamonds, staples, Bermudiana seeds, and cremains. Gavin also works in sculpture, performance and video” (source)
“Gavin often paints his abstracted figures using a unique combination of paints that render the subject in "ultra-black" and contrasts the figure's austerity with bright, saturated colors for the landscapes and backgrounds.” (source)
David Leggett lives and works in LA, his work has been described as “folk art with a gangster lean.”
“His work tackles many themes head on; hip-hop, art history, popular culture, sexuality, the racial divide, and the self are all reoccurring subjects. He takes many of my cues from standup comedians, which he listens to while in the studio.” (source)
“Fordjour uses imagery of carnivals, sporting contests, casinos, and games to grapple with complex issues like race and societal inequality in a “visually rich and accessible way.”” (source)
“Fordjour belongs to a group of African Americans, in their late thirties and forties, whose inventive approaches to black narratives are revitalizing figurative art, and, in 2019, are achieving unprecedented institutional support and exposure.” Financial Times (source)
“Derrick Adam’s multidisciplinary practice engages the ways in which individuals’ ideals, aspirations, and personae become attached to specific objects, colors, textures, symbols, and ideologies. His work probes the influence of popular culture on the formation of self-image, and the relationship between man and monument as they coexist and embody one another.” (source)
“Elias Sime is an Ethiopian, multi-disciplinary artist, working primarily in relief sculpture and architecture. For more than twenty-five years, the artist has made collage and sculptural assemblage from found objects such as thread, buttons, plastic, animal skins, horn, fabric and bottle tops, alongside organic building materials and binding agents such as mud and straw.” (source)
“[Sime] looks past the emotional weighting of new versus old, instead finding renewal everywhere, and taking greatest interest in the way that objects and ideas can connect in new ways.” (source)
Forrest Kirk lives and works in LA, painting “figurative oil, acrylic, and mix media works that are steeped in historical and sociopolitical underpinnings within a beautifully painted context.” (source)
“Moving fluidly between realism, figuration and pure color and texture, Kirk also incorporates elements of found objects, mixed media and collaged segments culled from his own original images. The result is an optical and spatial push-and-pull that keeps the eye from resting, in a poignant corollary to the unsettling narratives in the sociopolitically fraught scenes from literature, history and experience that he depicts, from James Baldwin to modern-day Los Angeles.” (source)
“Fred Wilson’s body of work encompasses sculpture, painting, photography, collage, printmaking, and installation. He is internationally lauded for his conceptual practice that subverts perception, revealing the undercurrents of historical discourse, ownership, and privilege normalized by institutional practices.” (source)
His most iconic works are his glass chandeliers (pictured). Wilson represented the United States at the 50th Venice Bienniale.
“Over the last four years, Lovell’s portraits have become increasingly complex, as he has embodied meaning into his usage of altering painting styles, noting how “painting in three dimensions best conveys my narrative. The thicker the paint, the more emphasis on the object.” As of late, his use of the impasto painting style has been more so to emphasize the body—applying the interspersed impasto technique as a variation in a style meant to distinguish between the human subjects and the material objects in his work.” (source)
Lovell lives and works in Atlanta, Georgia.
Ligon is “best known for his text-based paintings, made since the late 1980s, which draw on the writings and speech of diverse figures including Jean Genet, Zora Neale Hurston, Gertrude Stein and Richard Pryor.” (source)
“Through his work he pursues an incisive exploration of American history, literature, and society across a body of work that builds critically on the legacies of modern painting and more recent conceptual art.” (source)
Hank Willis Thomas
“Hank Willis Thomas is a conceptual artist working primarily with themes related to perspective, identity, commodity, media, and popular culture.” (source)
“He often incorporates recognizable icons into his work, many from well-known advertising and branding campaigns. On advertising, in an interview with Time, Thomas said, “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.” (source)
“Henry Taylor (b. 1958, Ventura, CA) continues to delve and expand upon the language of portraiture and painting, while also pointing to the social and political issues affecting African Americans today. From racial inequality, homelessness, and poverty, to the importance of family and community, Taylor says, “My paintings are what I see around me…they are my landscape paintings.” His portraits reveal a fascination with the sitters, as well as with the psychological and physical implications of “space”—public vs. private, interior vs. exterior.” (source)
“Locke explores the languages of colonial and post-colonial power, how different cultures fashion their identities through visual symbols of authority, and how these representations are altered by the passage of time. These explorations have led Locke to a wide range of subject matters, imagery and media, assembling sources across time and space in his deeply layered artworks.” (source)
Hew Donald Joseph Locke is a British sculptor and contemporary visual artist based in Brixton, London.
“Basquiat's art focused on dichotomies such as wealth versus poverty, integration versus segregation, and inner versus outer experience. He appropriated poetry, drawing, and painting, and married text and image, abstraction, figuration, and historical information mixed with contemporary critique.” (source)
“Basquiat used social commentary in his paintings as a tool for introspection and for identifying with his experiences in the black community of his time, as well as attacks on power structures and systems of racism. Basquiat's visual poetics were acutely political and direct in their criticism of colonialism and support for class struggle.” (source)
Casteel, born 1989, “has rooted her practice in community engagement, painting from her own photographs of people she encounters. Posing her subjects within their natural environments, her nearly life-size portraits and cropped “subway” compositions chronicle personal observations of the human experience.” (source)
“His large-scale, imagistic mixed-media paintings address systemic injustice, family wounds, and moving forward. All of those come into play in his work as a community organizer.” (source)
Seaberry is not only an artist but an activist who "built a career as a grassroots organizer, helping to fight and pass multiple criminal justice reform milestones, including Probation Reform, the Unshackling Pregnant Prisoners Bill, and laying the groundwork for the “Ban the Box” movement here in Rhode Island." (source)
“Kambel Smith creates large-scale sculptures representing iconic works of architecture using cardboard salvaged from the trash and other discarded materials such as foamcore and paint.” (source)
“Smith was diagnosed with Autism when he was eight years old. During the past ten years, his father has engaged the artist in daily improvised storytelling, encouraging Smith to participate in the created narrative by making drawings and sculpture.” (source)
“He’s a soldier in a war to change the autism narrative, and it’s working,” Lonnie Smith said of Kambel. “What he’s done is shown people that being different is not a problem. That being different is almost the new normal.” (source)
“New York-based artist Kara Walker is best known for her candid investigation of race, gender, sexuality, and violence through silhouetted figures that have appeared in numerous exhibitions worldwide.” (source)
“Los Angeles native and New York based visual artist, Kehinde Wiley has firmly situated himself within art history’s portrait painting tradition. As a contemporary descendent of a long line of portraitists, including Reynolds, Gainsborough, Titian, Ingres, among others, Wiley, engages the signs and visual rhetoric of the heroic, powerful, majestic and the sublime in his representation of urban, black and brown men found throughout the world.” (source)
He was famously commissioned to create a portrait of President Barack Obama in 2018 that now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.
Kerry James Marshall
“Kerry James Marshall uses painting, sculptural installations, collage, video, and photography to comment on the history of black identity both in the United States and in Western art. He is well known for paintings that focus on black subjects historically excluded from the artistic canon and has explored issues of race and history through imagery ranging from abstraction to comics.” (source)
“Leonardo Drew is known for creating contemplative abstract sculptural works that play upon a tension between order and chaos. Drew transforms accumulations of raw materials such as wood, scrap metal, and cotton to articulate various overlapping themes with emotional gravitas: from the cyclical nature of life and decay to the erosion of time. His surfaces often approach a language of their own, embodying the labored process of writing oneself into history.” (source)
“Born in Brooklyn, Lorna Simpson came to prominence in the 1980s with her pioneering approach to conceptual photography. Simpson’s early work – particularly her striking juxtapositions of text and staged images – raised questions about the nature of representation, identity, gender, race, and history that continue to drive the artist’s expanding and multi-disciplinary practice today. She deftly explores the medium’s umbilical relation to memory and history, both central themes within her work.” (source)
“Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s oil paintings focus on fictional figures that exist outside of specific times and places. Her paintings are rooted in traditional formal considerations such as line, color, and scale, and can be self-reflexive about the medium itself, but the subjects and the way in which the paint is handled is decidedly contemporary. Her predominantly black cast of characters often attracts attention.” (source)
Yiadom-Boakye is a British writer and painter who lives and works in the UK.
“Marcus Jahmal (b. 1990) lives and works in New York. His paintings synthesize a diverse range of inspirations and autobiography, drawing from photographs, ancient rituals, and personal memories. Developing his compositions directly upon the surface of each canvas, Jahmal coaxes imaginary, yet uncannily familiar, scenes to life, exploring themes encompassing dreams and folkloric Americana, and the contemporary realities of gentrification and city dwelling.” (source)
“Bradford transforms materials scavenged from the street into wall-size collages and installations that respond to the impromptu networks—underground economies, migrant communities, or popular appropriation of abandoned public space—that emerge within a city.”
Bradford lives and works in LA.
“Marlon Mullen bases his paintings on found photographic images – mostly from lifestyle, news and contemporary art periodicals — which the artist uses as a departure point for his subsequent work.”
Mullen is autistic or, put another way, he has autism spectrum disorder and is for the most part non-verbal. Mullen’s work was included in the 2019 Whitney Biennial in New York as well as in SFMOMA’s SECA Art Awards exhibition.
“Meleko Mokgosi’s large-scale, figurative, and often text-based works engage history painting and cinematic tropes to uncover notions of colonialism, democracy, and liberation across African history.” (source)
Mokgosi is also an assistant professor at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University.
Nathaniel Mary Quinn
“In his collage-like composite portraits derived from sources both personal and found, Nathaniel Mary Quinn probes the relationship between visual memory and perception. Fragments of images taken from online sources, fashion magazines, and family photographs come together to form hybrid faces and figures that are at once neo-Dada and adamantly realist, evoking the intimacy and intensity of a face-to-face encounter.” (source)
“Ndidi Emefiele is an artist for whom working with mixed-media means working without restrictions. Born in 1987, she is a mixed-media artist and painter.” (source)
“Cave is well known for his Soundsuits, sculptural forms based on the scale of his body, initially created in direct response to the police beating of Rodney King in 1991. Soundsuits camouflage the body, masking and creating a second skin that conceals race, gender and class, forcing the viewer to look without judgment. They serve as a visual embodiment of social justice that represent both brutality and empowerment.” (source)
“Throughout his practice, Cave has created spaces of memorial through combining found historical objects with contemporary dialogues on gun violence and death, underscoring the anxiety of severe trauma brought on by catastrophic loss. Cave reminds us, however, that while there may be despair, there remains space for hope and renewal.” (source)
Nina Chanel Abney
“Combining representation and abstraction, Nina Chanel Abney’s paintings capture the frenetic pace of contemporary culture. Broaching subjects as diverse as race, celebrity, religion, politics, sex, and art history, her works eschew linear storytelling in lieu of disjointed narratives. The effect is information overload, balanced with a kind of spontaneous order, where time and space are compressed and identity is interchangeable. Her distinctively bold style harnesses the flux and simultaneity that has come to define life in the 21st century.” (source)
Njideka Akunyili Crosby
“Akunyili Crosby sensitively negotiates the cultural terrain between her adopted home in America and her native Nigeria, creating collage and photo transfer-based paintings that expose the challenges of occupying these two worlds. She has created a sophisticated visual language that pays homage to the history of Western painting while also referencing African cultural traditions. Akunyili Crosby has a striking ability to depict deeply personal imagery that transcends the specificity of individual experience and engages in a global dialogue about trenchant social and political issues.” (source)
“Noah Davis’s paintings aimed to capture Black people in their ordinary life, contrasting society's narrative of guns, drugs, and violence which is too often the default.” (source)
Noah Davis was an American artist who was born in 1983 and died in 2015 at the young age of 32 from cancer. He founded The Underground Museum in LA, a black-owned-and-operated art space dedicated to the exhibition of museum-quality art in a culturally underserved African American and Latinx neighborhood in Los Angeles.
“Johnson’s work is known for its narrative embedding of a pointed range of everyday materials and objects, often associated with his childhood and frequently referencing collective aspects of African American intellectual history and cultural identity. To date, Johnson has incorporated elements / materials / items as diverse as CB radios, shea butter, literature, record covers, gilded rocks, black soap and tropical plants. Many of Johnson’s works convey rhythms of the occult and mystic: evoking his desire to transform and expand each included object’s field of association in the process of reception.” (source)
Serge Alain Nitegeka
“Influenced by his early experience as a refugee, Nitegeka produces works that address issues of identity sparked by forced migration and cultural and political borders. His installations present obstacles that promote participation in this metaphoric experience: they physically bisect three-dimensional space and use the viewer as a further disruptive variable, resulting in a tableau vivant of sorts. Serge's acute, investigatory aesthetic sense places him within the rich art historical cadre of minimalism and abstraction, while the larger concepts he tackles resonate in the atmosphere of today's global politics.” (source)
“Leigh works primarily with sculpture, installation, and video, as well as with Social Practice, to foreground black female experience. Often combining premodern techniques and materials—including lost-wax casting, salt-fired ceramics, and terracotta—with potent cultural iconographies such as cowrie shells, plantains, and tobacco leaves, Leigh creates objects and environments that reframe stereotypes associated with black women and celebrate black life.” (source)
“Stanley Whitney has been exploring the formal possibilities of colour within ever-shifting grids of multi-hued blocks and all-over fields of gestural marks and passages, since the mid-1970s. His current motif, honed over many years, is the stacked composition of numerous saturated colour fields, delineated by between three to five horizontal bands running the length of a square-formatted canvas. Taking his cues from early Minimalism, Color Field painters, jazz music and his favourite historical artists – Titian, Velázquez and Cézanne among them – Whitney is as much an exponent of the process-based, spatially-gridded square in art as Josef Albers, Sol LeWitt, Agnes Martin and Carl Andre.” (source)
Jackson is known for ‘painting without a canvas.’ “Built up in layers of pure acrylic, Jackson’s colossal “anti-canvases” are partially structured with netting, rods, and paper fragments, and strewn with cast-off color and other prosaic elements: peanut shells, bamboo, bells, loquat seeds, leather string. The artist’s handmade gestural impressions—pinching, crimping, and pleating—occur within a material transparency that lends each composition a uniquely lyrical and luminous dimensionality.” (source)
Toyin Ojih Odutola
“Toyin Ojih Odutola (b.1985 in Ile-Ife, Nigeria; lives and works in New York, NY) is best known for her multimedia drawings and works on paper, which explore the malleability of identity and the possibilities in visual story-telling. Interested in the topography of skin, Ojih Odutola has a distinctive style of mark-making using only basic drawing materials, such as ballpoint pens, pencils, pastels and charcoal. This signature technique involves building up of layers on the page, through blending and shading with the highest level of detail, creating compositions that reinvent and reinterpret the traditions of portraiture.” (source)
Trenton Doyle Hancock
“For almost two decades, Trenton Doyle Hancock has been constructing his own fantastical narrative that continues to develop and inform his prolific artistic output. Part fictional, part autobiographical, Hancock’s work pulls from his own personal experience, art historical canon, comics and superheroes, pulp fiction, and myriad pop culture references, resulting in a complex amalgamation of characters and plots possessing universal concepts of light and dark, good and evil, and all the grey in between.” (source)
Trenton Doyle Hancock’s fictional, comic-inspired characters from The Moundverse illustrate his experience as a Black youth in rural Texas
“Tschabalala Self builds a singular style from the syncretic use of both painting and printmaking to explore ideas about the black female body. The artist constructs exaggerated depictions of female bodies using a combination of sewn, printed, and painted materials, traversing different artistic and craft traditions. The exaggerated biological characteristics of her figures reflect Self’s own experiences and cultural attitudes toward race and gender.” (source)
“Vanessa German is an American sculptor, painter, writer, activist, performer, and poet. Her sculpture often includes assembled statues of female figures created with their heads/ faces painted black and a wide range of attached objects flowing outward including fabric, keys, found objects, and toy weapons. German serves as an activist addressing problems such as gun violence and prostitution.” (source)
Vanessa German works and lives in Philadelphia. She is the founder of the ARThouse, a community arts initiative for the children of Homewood. (source)
“Vaughn Spann devotes his practice to abstraction and figuration as an investigation into space, time and memory. He locates subjects from deeply personal spaces as he reconciles with his body within and out of the studio. With a deep admiration for formalism, he enjoys approaching paintings through the lens of color, line, and shape, but seemingly understands that one's subjectivity can't simply be divorced from the studio.” (source)
Vaughn Spann’s abstract and figurative works are subtle manifestations of deeper musings Spann has as a Black American man. Vaughn is a Studio Fellow at NXTHVN, the New Haven nonprofit arts incubator co-founded by his mentor, artist Titus Kaphar.
Woody De Othello
“Woody De Othello’s sculptures have the disconcerting quality of jokes with serious implications. While ostensibly figurative, his subject matter spans household objects, the natural world, and qualities of the body.” - Karma Gallery
Who are your favorite Black contemporary artists. Who else should be included in this list? Email me at email@example.com