Throughout not only the US but also the world over, February is celebrated as Black History Month. What initially began as “negro history week” in one college has sprung into an international movement that brings attention to the contributions black, afro-latin, and African people have made in every industry, from technology to politics to art. Here are some of the great Black visual artists we can look to and remember for their lasting impacts on technique and subject matter.
Jacob Lawrence | Perhaps one of the greatest names in Black and African American Art, Jacob Lawrence enjoyed a long career depicting Black life and exploring various art forms and media. Lawrence first came to national attention with his installation that depicted the Great Migration of free Blacks from the deep rural south to the urban north, where they settled in cities and took jobs in factories. His work stood out among other Harlem Renaissance artists because of his unique take on cubism as it applied to the world of jazz and Black folk. Lawrence went on to paint series dedicated to Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Toussaint L’Ouverture, each of whom were integral to helping Black people find freedom.
Benny Andrews | A highly political painter, Benny Andrews is a praised abstract expressionist whose work focused on injustices and disasters. His figures were often plain and simple and did not explore the drastic colors like his predecessors in the Harlem did. Rather, his laser-focus on suffering and pain took the form of singular figures that were complemented by collages or images that drew attention to false promises made to communities in need.
Amy Sherald | One of the biggest names in black art today, Sherald was recently selected by Michelle Obama to paint her official First Lady’s portrait. Sherald has already been featured in the new Smithsonian museum of African American History in Washington, DC. Whereas many black artists focus intensely on pain, Sherald’s work focuses on the banal and everyday activities of Black People, from simply holding a baby to standing in casual clothing. Sherald’s dark-skinned subjects are completely ordinary, and in their simplicity, they’ve found an audience in Chicago, New York, and DC.
Kehinde Wiley | Barack Obama selected this incredibly unique and budding artist to take on his portrait. Wiley uses his art to depict Black people as dignified and intrinsically royal. Many of his paintings show Black folks standing regally before an ornate floral background, drawing from British and French art of their royals. He also borrows from sacred Muslim geometry and African symbolism as a backdrop against which dark skinned subjects take their pose. His portrait of Barack is set to debut sometime in 2018 along with Sherald’s portrait of Michelle.