Discover the history of Afro-Caribbean and African American art with this study of the most famous Black artists, taking in a variety of different art movements.
Art has a very rich history. The richness in the history is vividly depicted in the series of styles and movements portrayed by different artists on their art pieces including illustrations, paintings and sculptures reflecting either the political or social conditions over the years.
Art created during a certain period in history has a way of carrying the identity of the culture of that particular time it was created. The art created by different famous African American and Afro-Caribbean artists is no different. Most of the art pieces created by these artists depicted humble beginnings just before the onset of the slave trade. However, after the slave trade, the styles and movements by these artists were more profound especially in the 19th and 20th centuries. It is pretty evident that most of the pieces were a representation of a people trying to find their own identity while still under influence by their new environments.
Despite all the challenges, African American and Afro-Caribbean artists have for a very long time now produced so many recognised artists who were keen on depicting their struggles through different media ranging from paintings, illustrations to sculptures. This post is about recognising these artists, the challenges they went through, their artworks and their contribution to the growth of art to date.
We put together this article for two main reasons, firstly to draw attention to the criminally under represented role of Afrcan American artists within the modern media, and secondly to make our collection of information on different types of art history far more comprehensive and inclusive. Our previous studies of famous French, Italian, British and German artists held a distinct lack of diversity, both in terms of race but also gender. So we set about constructing this list of famous female artists, as well as the African-American/Afro-Caribbean offering that you find within this section. In future, perhaps all of these will be merged together due to a fairer, more inclusive society, but reaching that point will no doubt involved further campaigning as seen today, as well as a generational shift in mindset in some corners of western life.
Challenges Faced by Black Artists and How Times are Changing
Challenges in Gaining Recognition with the Western Art Scene
It was quite normal for black people to appear in artworks as either exotic novelties or slaves. The same treatment was accorded to black artists for an extended period. It was very challenging for them to get their work recognised in the western art scene because the white audience wouldn't exactly identify with the black subjects or objects in their artworks. This was one of the greatest challenges that they faced.
For example, for many years now, slim, blonde and blue-eyed women were the ideal of beauty. Therefore, for black artists to come up with artworks shat showed otherwise, they would often evoke feelings of anger or resentment. Since they were famous for creating beautiful paintings, illustrations and sculptures with black figures taking centre-stage, it was quite difficult for them to gain any recognition. The darker the shades, the more marginalised the artists were.
Taking Jan Gossaert's Renaissance Altarpiece that sits in the National Gallery in London, for example, shows how the western artist used black figures in the stock scene as one of the magi. Similarly, those of an African background were not seen as potential artists but mostly as peripheral servants in the artworks created by western artists. For this reason, it was always very challenging for Black figures to be the central subjects in the history of art even in art-history books.
In most cases, all their artworks and creations had to be endorsed and ratified by the westerners as the power of structure. They had to stand on the side-line and watch other western artists achieve great things with art. According to a famous African American artist, Kerry James Marshall, such instances just cause psychological damage and undermining one's sense of self-worth. Therefore, the chances of them becoming more recognised for their creativity and artistic styles were minimal. That is why it was difficult for western exhibitions and museums to include artwork by African American or Afro-Caribbean artists.
Over the years, more people are increasingly embracing and celebrating Black art. However, this has come with lots of hard work and revolutions in the history of art. For instance, may American museums and token exhibitions now embrace artworks from Black artists and are now trying to rewrite the 20th-century art history by including Black artists.
Famous painter Norman Lewis on his deathbed, dying of cancer in 1979, contended that it would take 30-40 years for people pay to attention to the work and not the black artist who created it. His predictions were just about right because it took that long for museums like Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, National Gallery of Art in Washington and others to acquire his work. This is representational of the great milestone artists from minority backgrounds have achieved against many generations of the African American artists in the struggle to overcome institutional neglect.
Ten Most Famous African American and Afro-Caribbean Artists
Many Black artists have influenced art and how we perceive it. They have done a lot to impact culture, individuals, perspectives and the struggles of minorities in achieving recognition through their artwork. This is a list of 10 of the most famous Black artists but it is in no particular order.
1. Jean-Michel Basquiat
Despite his early death, at only 27, Basquiat has already achieved so much in such a short time. He remains famous for his contribution in art by his collaboration with Andy Warhol and use of primitive style and Neo-Expressionism. The artist is credited for bringing African-American and Latino experience to the western art scene in a more elite sense. His 1982 painting sold a record high for $110,500,000 in a US auction.
2. Augusta Savage
Born in a small town of Green Cove Springs, Florida, in 1892, he became the first African American artist to join the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors, though now defunct. Her career kicked off in New York during the Harlem Renaissance. Most of the works were greatly influenced by the prevailing conditions. The Harp still remains to be her most notable piece. However, due to lack of maintenance resources of the artwork, it was dismantled after the New York World’s Fair ended.
3. Alfred Conteh
The sculptor was born in Fort Valley, Georgia and he was mostly influenced by artists like Elizabeth Catlett, John Wilson ad Augusta Savage. He remains as one of the artists who unapologetically critiques the life of African Americans through art. His style was mostly portrayed by the use of unconventional and diverse materials to sculpt his pieces. He mostly used mousetraps, animal fur, plastic bags and chicken bones among others to depict some of his major themes including questioning the direction of the African American and Afro-Caribbean culture and as well as the accountability around that.
4. Elizabeth Catlett
She is a famous printmaker who was born in 1915 in Washington D.C. She still remains among the most versatile black women in art of her time. She was also the first artist to achieve an MFA degree in Sculpture from the University of Iowa. Although she was also great at sculpting, her contributions in print work gained more acclaim and that’s what she is famously known for. The Sharecropper is one of her famous prints depicting black life and circumstance.
5. Jacob Lawrence
He was born on Atlantic City, New Jersey, in 1917 but was raised in Harlem, New York. He is a famed painter who portrayed black figures in hi art. Most of his artworks were visually storytelling. They narrated the historical and circumstantial events in African American life. That is why his work was mostly considered as social realism. For instance, he depicted the Great Migration by his Migration Series. It was the time when many black people suffered oppressive conditions in the South but moved to the western and northern states seeking both economic and social relief.
6. Romare Bearden
He was born in 1911 in Charlotte, North Carolina. His famous works mostly ranged from collage to cartoon and they were remarkable. His narratives from the collages and cartoons were focused on blackness, from the abstract beauty, the body to the culture. His artworks were a form of activism because he used his art to advocate for African American artists by using real images of black people and their life on his collages to depict African American humanity. His notable works include Baptism and The Block. He is considered the 20th century’s preeminent artist. The Bearden Foundation was established later I 1988 after his demise.
7. Charly Palmer
He is famed for portraying historical events and black icons in his paintings including Jack Johnson, Barrack Obama, Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King and Fannie Lou Hamer among other prominent figures. He used his paintings to document major topical issues and movements in history including Civil Rights, sharecropping, slavery, Black Lives Matter, Voter Rights, Labour Rights, police brutality, Jim Crow, Black Power, family and social justice too. Palmer’s recent piece explores black race, activism and identity in America.
8. Jason Innocent
Considered as the second coming of Basquiat, Jason Innocent’s works are largely political and they have earned him near-universal acknowledgement. Most of his pieces revolve around power structures, poverty, and system of racism, social problems, class struggle and other similar back struggles. He is the first and youngest black artist with notable works with different subjects.
9. Kara Walker
At just 28, she became the youngest person to ever receive a MacArthur fellowship. She is famed for producing amazing works, mostly creating large paper silhouettes. They mostly explored social issues on black history, race and gender. She was also listed among the 100 Most Influential People in The World in 2007 by Time Magazine.
10. Kerry James Marshall
The artist makes use of videos, photography, sculptural installations, painting and collage to comment on the black identity’s history, not only in the US but also in western art in general. He remains famous for creating paintings focusing on black subjects that would otherwise be historically be left out from the artistic canon. He has managed to explore different issues on history and race via comic to abstraction.
History of Black Art
American slaveholders tried as much as they could to distance Africans from their roots and heritage in the 17 century. It was essentially a suppression of collective identity. As a result, people from these communities would start to use art as a way of passing time and expressing themselves. Years such black art for expression and storytelling gave rise to the 1920s Harlem Renaissance movement and the 1960s Second Black Renaissance. These movements were instrumental in the struggle to achieve black independence and cultural recognition. The coming years saw the rise of the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School (BARTS), which was a very important institution for furthering the Black arts movement.
It is also such movements that saw artists like Betye Saar come up with assemblage and the game-changing art style in textile art by Faith Ringgold. They made use of primitive artistic style, commonly referred to as tribal art to evoke the myths of the supremacy of the western culture and colonial superiority. Tribal art became so extensive and moved to different parts of the world including the UK and it gave birth to other movements like African and Oceanic art.
Nonetheless, with the onset of Postmodernism with artists like Basquiat leaving a great contribution to the history of art. Such revolutionary movements played a pivotal role in making the western ethnographic and natural museums to re-evaluate black art and start seeing the industry in a new light. In the same regard, contemporary urban artists including street artists like Keith Haring and Thierry Noir continue leaving a mark. Graffiti and tattoos continue becoming popular by the day as a result.
Influence of Black Art on Western Art
Although it took some time, African American and Afro-Caribbean art started being recognised by western art for their aesthetic value. The great names in the history of art that were greatly influenced by black art include Picasso, Van Gogh, Derain, Modigliani and Vlaminck among others. Furthermore, many modern Western artists continue rediscovering the enduring qualities of black art. The appreciation for black art for its intrinsic aesthetic value is evident in many western art compositions.
In France, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and their friends at School of Paris studied and incorporated the detailing f the human figure inspired by African sculptures with the Post-Impressionist painting styles to come up with paintings that were not only vividly coloured, with pictorial flatness but also with a touch of fragmented cubist shapes. They instantly appreciated the spirituality of the black compositions as a way of moving beyond naturalism. Other German Expressionist painters like Ernst Ludwig Kirchner blended the aesthetics of lack art with figural distortion and the emotional intensity of dissonant colour to come up with incredible compositions. Furthermore, Paul Klee also infused black art imagery in his compositions to come up with symbolic imageries.
Black art has a very extensive history. This article is intended to help create a greater awareness and appreciation of the contribution of African American and Afro-Caribbean artists in the history of art and their major influences.