Art history has frequently ignored the contributions of Black artists, while simultaneously glorifying those white painters, sculptures, and photographers who exploited the aesthetics of traditional and contemporary African art to push their own work forward.
For Picasso, traditional African art forms were examples of ‘primitive art’, works that were untainted by the corruption of modern man. European artists like Picasso and his fellow modernists embraced African and Oceanic masks and statuary, seeing in them an emotional directness that they found distinct, exciting, and creatively stimulating. However, by the late 20th century, the term, along with its racist and derogatory connotations, fell out of favour.
But, behind the term, lies a whole history of colonialism, enslavement, and prejudice. The six artworks on this list seek to respond to that history; exploring themes such as slavery, migration and diaspora, spirituality, and identity.
Whether it be a painting, sculpture, installation or something in between, each of these works altered the landscape of art – opening up an important dialogue in the process.
Six works by Black artists that changed the game:
The Harp by Augusta Savage (1939)
Augusta Savage’s desire to mold things out of clay transcended all else. She started making small figurines out of the natural clay around her home in Florida, and, despite her father’s attempts to beat it out of her, pursued her passion into adulthood. After relocating to New York in the 1920s, Savage took a place on the art program at Cooper Union, where she continued to hone her craft. Having sailed through the classes, she applied to a summer program in Paris, later discovering that had been rejected on account of her race. She attempted to shed light on the program’s blatant discrimination, but her efforts proved fruitless.
Savage stayed in New York and became one of the leading artists of the Harlem Renaissance, crafting a series of stunning expressive-realist sculptures, the most famous of which is The Harp. The sixteen-foot sculpture was cast in plaster but looks as though it was hewn from black basalt. Depicting a group of twelve Black singers, arranged in graduated height so that they look like the strings of a harp, Savage’s seeks to honor the musical contributions of America’s Black population.
Migration Series by Jacob Lawrence (1941)
Jacob Lawrence’s career began to earnest in 1937, when he enrolled at the American Artists School in New York on a scholarship. It was during his time here that he crafted his own form of modernist painting, which saw him produce depictions of everyday African American life suffused with the vivid palettes of Anita Malfatti and Mondrain.
Lawrence’s 1941 multi-panel work, Migration Series, gained him worldwide recognition, establishing him as one of the most important painters of the 20th century. Together, the 60 panels that make up the series tell the story of the Great Migration, which saw over one million African Americans move from the rural south to the urban north in the hope of gainful employment.
The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations by James Hapton (1950-1964)
James Hampton’s masterwork took more than fourteen years to complete. The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations is an eye-wateringly dazzling alter installation that was crafted entirely in solitude in a rented garage, while the artists awaited the return of Christ to the earth.
Hampton built The Throne entirely from discarded materials and found objects. Pieces of old furniture have been intermingled with old lightbulbs, pudding glasses, and fragments of smashed mirrors – all of which were found in second-hand stores, junkyards, and the federal offices where the artist worked his day job. In The Thronethe holiness of Christ is captured by sheets of tin foil and purple paper, which Hapton chose specifically to contrast with the brilliance of the light bulbs, representing God in all his illuminatory glory.
Untitled Skull 1 by Jean-Michel Basquiat (1981)
Jean-Michel Basquiat is undoubtedly one of the most revered neo-expressionist painters of the 20th century. For many years, he honed his craft on the street, tagging subway cars with his mark, ‘SAMO’, and selling clothes and postcards featuring his artworks. Following a group exhibit in his native New York, Basquiat’s career took off. Soon enough, he was the shining star of the Brooklyn art scene – famed for his celebration of Black power and for his combination of abstract expressionist techniques with elements of traditional African art.
Many of Basquiat’s finest paintings may be regarded as heavily stylised autobiographical works, and Untitled (Skull) is the perfect example. Occupying a liminal space between growth and decay, life and death, this fantastical self-portrait was inspired by his childhood fascination with Gray’s Anatomy, a book he was given by his mother at the age of seven. While the eyes are sunken, and the skull looks as though it has seen some brutal surgery, the use of color implies a vibrant inner life.
Gone by Kara Walker (1994)
Kara Walker’s work belies an enduring fascination with everything from Black history and racial identity to gender stereotypes. In her time, she has caused more controversy than perhaps any other of her contemporaries.
After graduating from the Island School of Design in 1994, Walker burst onto the scene with wondrous tenacity, exploring the history of Black slavery through occasionally fantastical and frequently violent imagery.
Her famous black-paper silhouette mural Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart made her an international star at the age of just 27. Defiant, subversive, and well-researched, Walker’s innovative works saw her named the youngest ever recipient of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation “genius grant.” However, she has also been the subject of controversy, with many critics arguing that her work supports and furthers Black stereotypes. Indeed, a number of Black artists have protested her exhibitions, denouncing them for pandering to white fragility.
Barack Obama by Kehinde Wiley (2017)
Nigerian-American Kehinde Wiley completely reimagined the canon of Western portraiture, placing black subjects at the center of the frame. Combining the traditional settings of the Old Masters with black sitters, Wiley’s work has also soaked up the influence of street art and textile design.
One of his most famous paintings is Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps (2005). Taking inspiration from Jacques-Louis David’s painting of Napoleon, Wiley replaces the titular Frenchman with a young black man dressed in modern streetwear. It is now held in the Brooklyn Museum.
In 2017, Wiley was asked to paint the official portrait of President Barack Obama for the National Portrait Gallery. The former president sits in a relaxed pose on a wooden chair, surrounded by a deep bed of flowers, many of which carry a symbolic meaning for the subject. The Chrysanthemums, for example, reference the official flower of Chicago, while the jasmine speaks of Hawaii, where Obama spent the majority of his childhood. The African blue lilies, meanwhile, represent his late Kenyan father. The portrait took the art world by storm when it was unveiled in 2018. Indeed, there are few portraits that have caught the public imagination quite like Wiley’s Obama portraits.