June 20, 2024

Beauty Arts

The Arts Authority

28 Overlooked Black Artists to Discover This Black History Month

28 Overlooked Black Artists to Discover This Black History Month

In honor of Black History Month, Artsy is featuring the work of 28 Black artists who are not as widely known or celebrated as some of their historical or contemporary peers. This list is meant to shine a light on artists who have prominence within institutions, but are often excluded from mainstream conversations meant to amplify overlooked Black artists or canonize them as leading figures of art history.

Of course, Alma Thomas, Jack Whitten, Sam Gilliam, and Frank Bowling are well-deserved citations of the early Black abstractionists, but lesser known to that history, broadly speaking, are Lilian Thomas Burwell, Evangeline “EJ” Montgomery, and Deborah Dancey. While contemporary artists like Kerry James Marshall, Betye Saar, and Faith Ringgold are the founding leaders of contemporary figurative painting and printmaking, the contributions of artists like Malcolm Bailey, Charles Alston, and Camille Billops may not be as widely discussed.

We hope this will serve as an introduction to, rather than a comprehensive list of, Black artists whose legacies deserve to be cemented in art history and public consciousness. Here are 28 need-to-know Black artists from the 20th and 21st centuries.

B. 1907, Charlotte, North Carolina. D. 1977, New York.

Known for his abstract approach to figurative portraits and narrative paintings, Charles Alston was instrumental to shaping the Harlem Renaissance. Believing that white audiences were incapable of looking deeply at Black subjects, Alston developed his signature style by erasing and painting over the representational likeness of his figures. While this approach might make Alston’s work appear “universal” to a larger audience, the artist’s faceless subjects instead feel like hyper-specific reflections of the conditions Black Americans faced during the early to mid-20th century.

Oftentimes, Alston’s images rebuke the iconography of the nuclear family that dominated art and media culture in the 1950s. This is evident in his painting The Family (1959), which depicts a household consisting of a Black mother and three children, omitting the traditional patriarchal figure of the father.

Malcolm Bailey

B. 1947, New York. D. 2011, New York.

Malcolm Bailey, Untitled, 1969, 1969. Courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Malcolm Bailey’s graphic paintings use form and color to unpack the history and suffering of the transatlantic slave trade. In his “Separate but Equal” series from the late 1960s, for example, he contrasted abolitionist diagrams of slave ships against other illustrations, such as that of a cotton plant. These paintings, like Untitled (1969), create a disturbing parallel between the realities of chattel slavery in treating humans like cargo, and that of commodities, like cotton, that enslaved people were refining in the Americas.

Across his paintings, Bailey deployed an almost minimalistic approach to allow color and space to dominate his canvases. This created, at first glance, an aesthetically pleasing image that sours at the harsh reality of the image content.

B. 1933, Los Angeles. D. 2019, New York.

Known for her extensive work archiving Black arts and culture from the 20th century, Camille Billops was also a formidable sculptor, printmaker, and filmmaker. She regularly incorporated her family history and life into her practice, specifically in her films. Her “docu-fantasies,” as she called them, used performance and archive to challenge records of history, and were at the forefront of Black women’s experimental film practices.

Meanwhile, Billops’s prints and sculptures feature bold lines and shapes that evoke early modern aesthetics, such as the Art Deco movement. In these works, she blends African, Western, and Eastern art styles and motifs to depict the impact global exchange has had on national identity. Her figures often parody and challenge Western depictions of Black people, making for an uneasy engagement due to their frankness, while revealing the discomforting history of art, representation, and Blackness.

B. 1937, Williamsburg, Virginia. D. 2016, New York.

Most commonly known as a founding member of the Studio Museum in Harlem, Betty Blayton was also an accomplished abstract painter. Her works—“spiritual abstractions,” as she called them—were made through a process that combined monotype printing with traditional painting.

In these abstract prints, Blayton plays with the graduation of hues, often a single color or color family. Viewers are left hypnotized as they sink into the swirl of color, ink, and water that conjure the otherworldly, as evident in Resisting Life Forces #3 (2000). An accomplished educator and curator, Blayton was a foundational abstractionist for many New York–based artists in the late 20th century, including the legendary Jean-Michel Basquiat, her former student.

Hilda Wilkinson Brown

B. 1894, Washington, D.C. D. 1981, Washington, D.C.

Hilda Wilkinson Brown, Young Man Studying, 1933. Photo by Gregory R. Staley. Courtesy of Howard University Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Licensed by Art Resource, NY.

Hilda Wilkinson Brown’s richly vibrant paintings capture the individuals and scenic landscapes of her community in the Ledroit Park neighborhood of Washington, D.C., and in Martha’s Vineyard. Her thick brushstrokes render her figurative paintings dense and expressive, evoking the work of her contemporaries Alice Neel, and even the early figurative paintings of Alma Thomas.

Brown worked tirelessly to represent Black leisure at a time when many Black artists were drawn to Social Realism. This difference in style and content enables her paintings to capture the quiet side of Black life that is too often neglected, as seen in her portrait believed to be of Langston Hughes, as he looks pensively at his notebook.

B. 1927, Washington, D.C. Lives and works in Highland Beach, Maryland.

Instrumental to Lilian Thomas Burwell’s art career is her aunt Hilda Wilkinson Brown, who provided support, lessons, and financial resources as Burwell’s family recovered from the Great Depression.

Burwell creates Abstract Expressionist works and sculptural paintings inspired by nature. Featuring closely cropped details of flowers and leaves, Burwell’s work evokes that of Georgia O’Keeffe. But unlike O’Keeffe, Burwell shapes her canvases into unique forms, blurring the boundaries between painting and sculpture, not unlike Sam Gilliam’s beveled canvases.

B. 1973, Eglin AFB, Florida. Lives and works in Baltimore.

Mixed-media artist Zoe Charlton uses collage and video to untangle the legacy of slavery and segregation on the contemporary lives of Black Americans. Through collage, she physically combines objects, individuals, and cultures to narrate the violent subjugation of individuals of the African diaspora by white Americans and Europeans.

Charlton’s 2019 series “The Domestic,” inspired by her grandmother’s own experience, examines the history of Black domestic workers in white households. Using cut-outs of nude Black women, Charlton frankly uncovers the tense sexual politics that are embedded into the role of being a wet nurse or nanny to other people’s children.

B. 1949, Bessemer, Alabama. Lives and works in Storrs, Connecticut.

Deborah Dancy works across photography, printmaking, sculpture, and photography. Her awe-inspiring abstractions uncover the sinister accounts of violence related to American history. On her surfaces, narratives surrounding Western expansion and empire appear alluring, but beneath the gloss lies the ugly truth. Her deft criticism of history through abstraction is arguably what makes the work of artists like Julie Mehretu possible.

Dancy’s large-scale oil paintings envelop viewers with their mammoth size, while simultaneously repelling audiences with a dreary atmosphere of muted earth tones in olive greens, grays, blacks, and deep blues. Through this delicate dance, Dancy addresses sociocultural issues related to power, memory, and history.

B. 1898, Rio de Janeiro. D. 1966, Rio de Janeiro.

Heitor dos Prazeres was a Brazilian composer, singer, and painter. While the artist’s samba music continues to live on after his death, less remembered are his figurative paintings. Dos Prazeres’s paintings and drawings take after the Fauvist style, in which figuration is dominant but fidelity to representational likeness is removed in favor of a more painterly style.

With figures dancing or playing music, Dos Prazeres’s work often centers and represents the liveliness of the music community in Brazil. Other times, he captured the process of artmaking by depicting an artist, perhaps a self-portrait, painting a classical nude model. Across his multi-hyphenated practice, Dos Prazeres incorporated his community into the pantheon of art and music history.

B. 1892, Long Creek, North Carolina. D. 1987, Wilmington, North Carolina.

Minnie Evans’s psychedelic paintings and drawings were all crafted from hallucinogenic dreams. The self-taught artist did not pursue art willingly inasmuch as she was compelled to through sheer psychic force. In the documentary The Angel that Stands Besides Me: Minnie Evans’s Paintings (1983), she recalled waking up from a trance to hear a voice that said: “Draw or die.” After that moment in 1935, Evans committed her life to drafting the visions she experienced.

Rendered in bold colors, Evans’s drawings feature figures—what she described as “angels”—with multiple eyes and arms. Her paintings expand upon these works and place the figures in outlandish landscapes that represent the spirit world. Her fantastical life was also the inspiration for the experimental short film Praise House (1991), a collaboration between director Julie Dash and choreographer Jawole Willa Jo Zollar.

Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller

B. 1877, Philadelphia. D. 1968, Framingham, Massachusetts.

Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, Storytime, 1961. Gift of the Meta V. W. Fuller Trust. Courtesy of the Danforth Art Museum at Framingham State University.

Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, Mother and Child, n.d. Gift of the Meta V. W. Fuller Trust. Courtesy of the Danforth Art Museum at Framingham State University.

Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller helped pioneer the incorporation of African heritage and cultural motifs among Black American artists of her generation. Combining the expressive allegories of Black Southern fables with figures engaged in mundane activities, her neoclassical sculptures memorialize Black quotidian experiences across the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Fuller’s groundbreaking sculptures also poignantly address social issues. It is widely believed that one of her first-ever artworks, Mary Turner: A Silent Protest Against Mob Violence (1919), was created as a critique of lynching. The piece is dedicated to Mary Turner, a pregnant 19-year-old who was murdered by a white mob in Lowndes County, Georgia, in 1918.

While FuLler tackled the social ills of her times, she also used her work to represent Black triumph and success, creating images for her audiences to look up to and aspire towards. This can be seen in the swathe of sculptures she has dedicated to motherhood and African history.

Marguerite Harris

B. 1963. Lives and works in Paris.

Marguerite Harris, Material Functions, 2016. Courtesy of the artist.

Marguerite Harris works with film to create her expansive cinema installations. Looping film around gallery spaces to create an interactive web, Harris examines how the moving image captures and transmutates time and space.

To create these immersive viewing experiences, Harris combines analog film with various technologies—like video signals, contemporary digital editing methods, and computer graphics. Her works document and relay how technological changes alter our perception of images and time itself.

B. 1890, Widewater, Virginia. D. 1973, New York.

Palmer Hayden, The Subway, 1941. © The Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza Art Collection. Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art.

Palmer Hayden rose to prominence as an artist of the Harlem Renaissance. His figurative paintings differ, however, from the oft-used Social Realist aesthetics practiced by his peers, like Aaron Douglas. Instead, Hayden approached painting as to unpack interiority and W.E.B. Du Bois’s concept of double consciousness. Through narrative scenes of community gatherings and domestic interiors, Hayden addressed the psychological reality of life as a Black man in the United States.

In the 1941 painting The Subway, Hayden painted a Black man riding on the subway and looking out at the viewer. The artist’s thick brushstrokes add an emotive quality to the scene, capturing the ennui and remorse potentially felt by the subject. Later in his career, Hayden’s work was exhibited in the New York gallery Just Above Midtown, which is currently the subject of a dedicated exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.

B. 1946, New York. Lives and works in New York.

Incorporating sculpture, collage, design, beadwork, photography, and dolls, Janet Henry’s mixed-media installations darkly satirize the ins and outs of the art world. Henry is best known for her dioramas, like Studio Visit (1982), in which a Black doll, representing the artist, looks tersely as a white doll—a symbol for the role of a curator—smiles bemusedly while holding an empty art frame. The artist-doll tilts her head to evoke the all-too-familiar annoyed pose of explaining one’s work or lived experience to an aloof outsider.

Henry’s art practice is largely inspired by her time working with fellow artist Linda Goode Bryant, the director of the gallery Just Above Midtown (JAM). Inspired by the gallery’s push for experimentation and storytelling in the 1980s, Henry embraced unconventional materials to represent experiences of Black womanhood that were not accounted nor embraced by the larger art world at the time.

B. 1888, Boston. D. 1967, San Francisco.

Sargent Claude Johnson’s sculptures and prints heavily evoke the bulbous and shapely forms found across analytical and synthetic Cubism, which allowed him to create both abstracted and grounded representations of Black life. In the early 20th century, he helped pioneer expressive Social Realist work among Black sculptors and printmakers.

The San Francisco–based artist is often erroneously categorized as a member of the Harlem Renaissance due to the time period and style of his practice. His formal similarities to his New York–based contemporaries are due to their collective work with the Works Progress Administration, and the influence of the Mexican muralists who traveled across the United States in the late 1920s through the ’40s.

B. 1905, Boston. D. 1998, Washington, D.C.

Lois Mailou Jones’s vibrant figurative paintings were inspired by the artist’s background in textile design. Jones was one of the first Black women to graduate from Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts. Her artistic practice is often associated with her role as an arts professor at Howard University from 1930 to 1977, where she trained artists like Elizabeth Catlett and Sylvia Snowden.

Among Jones’s early paintings, still lifes and portraits reign supreme. In the oil painting Dans un Café à Paris (Leigh Whipper) (1939), the artist’s emotive brushstrokes demonstrate her deft skill at animating her subjects. During the second half of Jones’s career, her design background returned to the fore. She combined colors, patterns, and motifs from Haitian culture and the African diaspora to create bold figurative paintings that centered Afro-Caribbean customs, ornaments, and statues.

B. 1975, Baltimore. Lives and works in New York.

Lauren Kelley, Backside Float, 2006. Courtesy of the artist.

Mixed-media artist Lauren Kelley uses dolls to critique Eurocentric beauty standards and reflect on their impact on the psyches of Black women. Across video and photography, Kelley incorporates humor and the grotesque to parody and challenge how these skewed beauty values are disseminated through mass culture and subsequently internalized.

In the photograph Backside Float (2006), a brown-skinned Barbie doll mutates into an amorphous blob of flesh that is consumed by a green pool of water. The malformed in Kelley’s work evokes the human-creature hybrids found in Renaissance art while analogously conveying issues that are difficult to represent, such as body dysmorphia.

Evangeline “EJ” Montgomery

B. 1930, New York. Lives and works in Washington, D.C.

EJ Montgomery, Fall Winds, 1997. Courtesy of Brandywine Workshop and Archives.

EJ Montgomery, Late Fall, 2010. Courtesy of Brandywine Workshop and Archives.

Evangeline Montgomery has worked extensively as a curator and artist for the past six decades. As a curator at various institutions in the Bay Area, she was instrumental in covering seminal exhibitions on Black American artists like Sargent Claude Johnson. Her artistic practice is largely abstract, and includes printmaking, painting, and sculpture.

Montgomery’s best-known sculptures are her ancestor boxes. Frequently dedicated to prominent civil rights leaders, they are made out of sterling silver and feature found objects. Red, Black and Green Ancestral Box – Garvey Box (1973), for example, is cast in silver with red, black, and green enamel to evoke the colors of Marcus Garvey’s Pan-African flag. By indexing a person’s politics into her work, Montgomery demonstrates how politics can be narrated in art beyond representational likeness.

B. 1951, Chicago. Lives and works in New York.

Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe’s photographs are candid and frank in their depiction of mundane encounters. Her ability to capture the intimate, seemingly innocuous details of life—like a father holding his daughter, or a young girl looking out of the window—makes her work feel incredibly tender. This photographic eye, heavily influenced by mentors Gordon Parks and Garry Winogrand, enabled Moutoussamy-Ashe to produce a rich archive of portraits of people living with HIV/AIDS, including her husband Arthur Ashe, in the 1990s during the height of the epidemic.

In her 1993 photography book, Daddy and Me, Moutoussamy-Ashe photographed her husband with their daughter Camera during the last days of his life. Moutoussamy-Ashe’s attentive eye has also led her to produce documentary work on underrecognized communities across the Black diaspora, as seen in her book Daufuskie Island (1982), which captures some of the last members of the Gullah communities who live on the titular island.

B. 1953, New York. Lives and works in New York.

Marilyn Nance, Nigeria FESTAC ’77, 1977. © Marilyn Nance / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of the artist.

Marilyn Nance photographs individuals across the Black diaspora. The difference, for Nance, between making and oft-used “capturing” of an image is critical. The former suggests a process of collaboration between the photographer and the subject, whereas the latter repeats the colonial history of capturing images and bodies of Black individuals without their consent.

Actively rejecting this history across language and practice, Nance creates a counter-archive that is empowering and extremely tender. Her recent book The Last Day in Lagos (2022) catalogs her images of FESTAC 77 (Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture), a month-long festival held in Lagos, Nigeria, in 1977. The photos account for one of the most thorough observations of Black culture, testimony, and celebration available.

B. 1930, Owan East, Nigeria. D. 2014, Lagos.

J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere’s black-and-white photographs of Afro-textured hair tenderly capture the complexity and beauty of Black culture across the diaspora. In his tightly cropped images, his subjects are seen from behind, allowing him to capture the intricate details of ornamentation featured in Black braiding styles. Subverting the standard face-forward portrait, Ojeikere transforms anonymity into a hyper-personalized representation of individual style and culture.

The Nigerian-born photographer was trained in the documentary style of cinéma vérité that was globally popular across the 1950s and ’60s, which aimed to depict subjects in real situations experiencing real life without props or special lighting. Ojeikere’s images certainly reflect this influence, portraying Black culture in an aesthetically simple yet honest light.

B. 1928, Retreat, Jamaica. D. 2019, Falmouth, Virginia.

Mavis Pusey’s geometric abstractions across printmaking and painting are partially influenced by the artist’s background in fashion. While pursuing a career as a designer and seamstress in 1960s New York, Pusey gradually took art courses and eventually studied with artist Will Barnet, who was instrumental in her decision to pursue her modern art practice.

Pusey’s large-scale abstractions still bear traces of her sewing and design background through her use of shapes, cut-outs, and lines. Still, Pusey’s work as a printmaker further informed her multifaceted approach to artmaking that involved mixing mediums, inks, and compositions.

B. 1964, Cape Town. Lives and works in Cape Town.

Berni Searle uses photography, video, and performance to document and interrogate her relationship with memory, belonging, and place. Searle, who grew up during South African apartheid as a mixed-race Black woman, draws attention to the in-between experience of her upbringing.

In Searle’s “Colour Me” series (1998–2000), the artist covered her body in pigments and spices to connect the histories of racial classifications in South Africa with the trade of spices during colonial regimes. In this early body of work and others, Searle engulfed audiences with oversized images of her body. In taking up physical space in an institution, her magnified presence also emphasized the ways her body is deeply entangled with past and contemporary political struggles across South Africa.

B. 1942, New York. Live and works in New York.

Coreen Simpson’s photographs stylistically capture culture and personality through pose and photomontage. Despite their absence of color, Simpson’s black-and-white images are vibrant, using contrasting highlights and shadows to dramatize the subject’s body. With a background in fashion, Simpson occasionally overlaps objects, like a clock or a piece of jewelry, onto the hair, face, or body of her subjects, rendering her portraits fragmented and abstract.

Simpson’s interest in fashion shines through not only in her photography practice, but also in her critically acclaimed Black cameo pins. A play on the Victorian broach, the pins feature a black silhouette of a woman with Afro-textured hair. They have become a cornerstone in Black culture since their inception in the 1980s.

B. 1936, Jacksonville, Florida. D. 2003, Atlanta.

Mildred Thompson’s rich multimedia practice forwent representation in favor of abstraction across photography, printmaking, sculpture, and painting. Her preference for abstraction was inspired by her creative writing background, as well as her love for science and music. For Thompson, her work was ever in search of finding meaning and unearthing experiences beyond what we know to be visible.

Thompson’s large-scale abstract paintings use shape, line, and color to convey her experiences of listening to music. The linework across her paintings evokes the frequency of a jazz record. Her canvases render musical crescendos as moments of transcendence, not unlike the work of William T. Williams or Norman Lewis.

B. 1922, Boston. D. 2015, Brookline, Massachusetts.

John Wilson’s paintings, prints, and sculptures capture the spirit and labor of Black Americans’ never-ending fight for civil rights. Wilson, like many Black American artists of the 1940s, derived his style from the popular Social Realism movement. Foregrounding labor, union movements, activism, and family relationships, his paintings aim to represent the social ills affecting Black people. For Wilson, these issues were universal, meaning he aspired to have a larger audience identify with the struggle of a people.

Later on in Wilson’s career, the artist’s knack for modernist curves and angles, which were seen across his earlier figurative works, took center stage and evolved into abstract paintings and sculptures. Across media, Wilson often used a color palette that allowed his draftsmanship to shine while matching the severity of his content. He is most widely known for his bust of Martin Luther King Jr. that is on display in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol Building.

B. 1975, Chicago. Lives and works in Carrizozo, New Mexico.

Combining print and painting techniques, Paula Wilson’s narrative figurative paintings unpack the legacy of the Black diaspora. Her majestic, brightly colored paintings feature a variety of textures via ink, fabric, and paper that are collaged together on unstretched canvas. Wilson literally places history onto the bodies of her subjects.

Recent works, like In the Desert: Malpis Rug (2016), examine the aesthetics of the landscape of New Mexico, where the artist is currently based. These pieces create a dynamic range of scenery due to Wilson’s use of monoprinting and lithography, as well as paint to draw out the tactile qualities of the mediums.

B.1900, Cairo, Illinois. D. 1980, New York.

A titan of the Harlem Renaissance, figurative painter and printmaker Hale Aspacio Woodruff blended fables to narrate real issues affecting Black people in the early to mid-20th century. Although Woodruff adapted a Cubist style while he lived in France between 1927 and 1931, he opted for a Social Realist aesthetic across his practice to better reflect and critique racial injustices. In the 1930s, Woodruff honed into this style while training with Diego Rivera and other prominent Mexican muralists in New York.

Woodruff’s work sought to humanize Black life during a time of segregation and mass lynchings. He was invaluable in helping educate a generation of Black youth, both through his role as an educator at New York University as well as a muralist who painted Black history on a large scale for a public audience.

Ayanna Dozier

Ayanna Dozier is Artsy’s Staff Writer.

Header imager: Charles Alston, “Restaurant Scene,” 1930. Courtesy of RoGallery.