Individual contributions from all concerned quarters make up a whole story, where each perspective is examined and layered on the collective narrative. When a voice is silenced, it kills what could have been, and like a missing puzzle piece, it leaves a gaping hole, an erasure of important history. In unfortunate circumstances, the censorship may continue like dominoes for many generations, with emerging generations that ought to expand the story receiving the charge of obscurity.
For centuries, famous black artwork has contributed their rich history and experiences to the art world, telling their stories and perspectives in ways unique to them. However, seeing as art history is predominantly made up of white artists and their conquests, the artistic contributions of their black counterparts suffer obscurity.
Fortunately, contemporary visual arts audiences crave more diversity and are becoming increasingly interested in the untold side of art history. Consequently, galleries, museums, and libraries are beginning to give overdue recognition to the works of colored artists. This article looks at some famous black artists and their works.
Kara Elizabeth Walker is a contemporary black artist in America. She is famous for her paper silhouettes with which she explores socio-cultural issues like race and gender. In 1997, she was rewarded for her creative genius with a MacArthur Fellowship, a “genius grant” that acknowledges extraordinary talent. She was only 28, making her one of the youngest ever recipients.
Although Kara is also a painter and sculptor, producing works in watercolor and gouache and her A Subtlety sculpture, her art is characterized chiefly by her black-paper silhouettes. These are black figures placed against a white background resulting in images that typically address the history of black enslavement and racism.
Some of her notable works include Insurrection ((Our Tools Were Rudimentary, Yet We Pressed On), a silhouetted piece against light projections referencing the American favorite Gone With the Wind. Additionally, her 2005 exhibition, 8 Possible Beginnings or: The Creation of African-America, a Moving Picture, introduced motion and sound to her silhouettes, further immersing viewers in her art.
Henry Ossawa Tanner
Tanner was an American artist and is regarded as the first black artist to gain international recognition. He studied in France at the Académie Julian in 1891 and became popular among French artistic circles. Some of his artworks were accepted into the Paris Salon, a prestigious art exhibition in France, and one of them was purchased by the French government in 1897.
Although faced with racism throughout his career, Tanner struggled to educate himself and improve his craft. He went to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts between 1879 and 1881, becoming his only black student.
Tanner specialized in religious scenes, landscapes, and genre scenes of daily living. He produced some of the most famous black paintings and is regarded as the most incredible black artist.
Johnson was an American painter of mixed ancestry. His father was a white man, while his mother was an enslaved Black person. Records show that his father purchased him from his mother’s enslaver at 19 and acknowledged his sonship at 21.
Johnson began painting portraits of prominent members of society. Johnson received no formal art training, categorizing his art as Naive, an art style created by an artist who lacks proper training. In a newspaper publication, Johnson referred to himself as “a self-taught genius.”
Some of his notable works include The Westwood Children, an 1807 painting now residing at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. The painting depicts the three sons of John Westwood, a wealthy stagecoach manufacturer in Baltimore. The boys, each holding flowers, are joined by their pet dog, which has a bird in its mouth.
Basquiat was the son of Haitian immigrant parents, born and raised in New York City. He enjoyed a decorated and widely successful 10-year career between 1978 and his death in 1988. He was part of the Neo-Expressionist art movement and favored graffiti and street art. With daring images and bold, colorful brushstrokes, his art reflected the edginess which characterized the move, and its proponents were often referred to as New Fauves (the new wild ones).
Basquiat’s art focused on parallel opposites in American society. His paintings portrayed dichotomies like the haves and have-nots, subjectivity and objectivity, and segregation versus integration. He used the social commentary in his paintings as a tool for exploring and projecting his experiences as a black man.
Basquiat passed away when he was only 27 years old from a heroin overdose, a death regarded as a massive loss to the art community. However, his paintings have increased in value since his death, hitting hundreds of millions in record sales at auctions around New York City. His 1982 painting, Untitled, sold for $110.5 million, making it one of the priciest paintings ever sold.
Jacob Armstead Lawrence was an American painter notable for depicting Black-American subjects and contemporary scenes. Because of his preferred subjects, he mainly painted with blacks and browns accentuated by vibrant primary colors. Lawrence also worked as a professor for 16 years at the University of Washington.
Lawrence’s interest in art began at a young age when he attended free art classes in Preschool. At 23, he received national recognition for his 60-panel series, The Migration. It depicts the Great Migration of Negroes from rural Southern America to urban Northern America. The series has remained his most notable work to date.
His paintings are valued in American society, and most of them are in the permanent collections of numerous prestigious museums across the country.
It is imperative for the black man’s story to be told through visual art. It opens the mind to the uniqueness and richness of black history, culture, and heritage. Black people paintings also inspire other aspiring black artists to see people like themselves who are celebrated for their talents.