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Exploring the Influence of African American Artists on Contemporary Art

Welcome to my blog. Today, I will embark on a journey through the remarkable contributions of African American artists to the contemporary art scene. Beginning with the pioneers of the Harlem Renaissance and moving through to today's groundbreaking artists, I explore the lasting impact and vibrant creativity they've brought to art's narrative. These artists have enriched the art world with their unique perspectives and rich, dynamic expressions and played a crucial role in shaping the dialogue around contemporary art.


One of the first themes we'll explore is the concept of artistic identity. I have always been moved by how African American artists use their craft to articulate their unique experiences and viewpoints. Their art deeply resonates with identity, a quest to reclaim and redefine narratives that have historically marginalized or misrepresented their culture.

 Aaron Douglas“   "Aspects of Negro Life: From Slavery to Reconstruction” From The New York Public Library,"                                     In 1934, under the Public Works of Art Project, artist Aaron Douglas created a four-panel mural named “Aspects of Negro Life” using oil on canvas. This artwork depicts the evolution of African American life, tracing their path from enslavement through the era of Reconstruction and towards a promising future in Harlem after World War I.

Through their powerful expressions, Harlem Renaissance artists Hale Woodruff, Aaron Douglas, Archibald Motley, Richmond Barthé, and others addressed racial injustice, the echoes of slavery, and the ongoing struggle for civil rights. By courageously challenging societal norms and delving into their heritage, they've laid the groundwork for a more inclusive and richly diverse art world.

Another critical theme I'm eager to delve into is the significance of African American art as a form of cultural resistance. History shows us how African American artists have wielded their creativity as a weapon against oppression, using their art to document the struggles and victories of the Civil Rights Movement and to spotlight the experiences of the African diaspora. Their fearless art acts as a counter-narrative to societal inequalities, showcasing the power of art as a tool for social change.

In 1959, the National Conference of Artists (NCA) was established, creating a pioneering and expansive platform for visual arts in the country, with a particular focus on artists of African descent, yet welcoming to everyone. In 1968, Jeff Donaldson, Barbara Jones-Hogu, Wadsworth Jarrell, and Gerald Williams founded the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists (AfriCOBRA), marking another significant moment in cultural resistance through art. Both initiatives have fostered artistic expression and celebrate and solidify black identity, style, and worldview, contributing to a broader sense of solidarity and self-confidence across the African diaspora.

The NCA embodied a commitment to nurture and showcase black art by offering scholarships for visual arts degrees, promoting events from other arts organizations, and maintaining a diverse membership base of artists, educators, and collectors. NCA nationwide chapters and the publication "The Artery," a quarterly journal, further their mission to keep the community informed and engaged.

AfriCOBRA's approach emphasized the revolution of the mind, body, and spirit through art, aligned with the objectives of illustrating the power of cultural resistance. Both organizations underscore the significance of artistic resistance by employing art as a medium for change rather than political revolt. It's a testament to how art can unify, offering a platform for expressing shared identities and experiences and playing a crucial role in challenging and reshaping societal narratives and perceptions. This collective effort highlights the indispensable role of art in fostering community, resilience, and empowerment within the African diaspora.

One cannot discuss contemporary African American art without mentioning figures such as Kerry James Marshall, whose work explores the dimensions of Black identity and representation. Marshall's paintings often incorporate elements of African American history and culture, challenging the marginalization of Black figures in the art world. Another notable artist is Kehinde Wiley, known for his vibrant, large-scale paintings that reframe Black youth in heroic contexts, famously painting President Obama's official portrait.

The influence of African American artists extends beyond painting. For instance, sculptor and installation artist Kara Walker uses silhouettes to explore the interplay of race, gender, and sexuality, confronting the violent history of American slavery and racism. Through her powerful imagery, photographer Carrie Mae Weems investigates family relationships, cultural identity, sexism, class, political systems, and the consequences of power.

The contributions of these artists and many others are not just a matter of historical record but continue to inspire and provoke dialogue about race, identity, and the role of art in society. Their work is regularly featured in major exhibitions and collections worldwide, serving as a testament to African American artists' enduring influence and importance in the contemporary art scene. Articles and sources that delve into the contributions of African American artists to contemporary fine art often come from reputable art journals, exhibition catalogs, and academic publications. These sources provide critical insights, analyses, and retrospectives that contextualize the work of African American artists within broader art historical and socio-political narratives.

In conclusion, the scope and depth of art created by Black people in America is over two centuries long. It is a tradition with roots that extend back to the very founding of the country, with artists like Robert S. Duncanson, Joshua Johnson, and Edmonia Lewis represented alongside more recent talents like Norman Lewis, Charles White, and Alma Thomas. Furthermore, African American artists have significantly shaped contemporary art by exploring identity, resistance, community, and cultural celebration themes. Their work reclaims narratives, challenges dominant ones, and embraces and honors their cultural heritage, fundamentally transforming the art world. As we continue this blog, we'll spotlight specific artists, movements, and artworks embodying these themes, celebrating African American artists' vibrant and impactful contributions to contemporary art. So, let's start this journey together, appreciating and acknowledging the profound influence of African American art on our creative landscape. Below are a few sources for those who are interested in learning more about artists of African descent.

 "Black Art: In the Absence of Light," a rich and absorbing documentary directed by Sam Pollard and streaming on HBO. The feature-length film, assembled from interviews with contemporary artists, curators, and scholars, was inspired by a single 1976 exhibition, "Two Centuries of Black American Art," the first large-scale survey of African-American artists.

 "Basquiat," released in 1996, is an American biographical drama that marks Julian Schnabel's first foray into directing. Schnabel, who also wrote and contributed to the film's music, brings to life the story of Jean-Michel Basquiat, a renowned American artist known for his postmodernist and neo-expressionist work. Prime Video


Caribbean Art (The World of Art,  Paperback – May 28, 1998, by  Veerle Poupeye  (Author)


We Flew over the Bridge: The Memoirs of Faith Ringgold by Faith Ringgold

 A to Z of Caribbean Art Paperback – November 12, 2019, by  Melanie Archer  (Editor), Mariel Brown  (Editor), Rob Perrée  (Contributor), & 14more


Aesthetic of the Cool: Afro-Atlantic Art and Music by Robert Farris


Culture Type Magazine, Victoria L. Valentine, Founder and Editor,

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