5 Black Female Artists Whose Activism Influenced their Art

February marks Black History Month, where we celebrate and acknowledge the amazing achievements and contributions that have been made by black leaders, politicians, athletes, musicians, artists, writers, and others. The following five black female artists are only a fraction of the many throughout history that used their media and platform as a way to voice their experiences. Their works of art have become important symbols of activism and what it means to be a black woman in America.

1. Nina Simone

Known as the “High Priestess of Soul,” Nina Simone was a world-renowned singer and activist. A classically trained pianist from childhood, Simone blended this with influences from jazz, fold, and blues in her works. She was highly active during the Civil Rights Movement, in which her music took a political turn and featured themes mainly relating to dealing with racial inequality and political activism. Her song “Mississippi Goddam” was a direct reaction to the Medgar Evers murder and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963. Simone’s blunt politicalness in her songs provided a voice for the anger that many Black Americans felt. Her music made people listening have to face and confront what was going wrong in society.

2. Elizabeth Catlett

Elizabeth Catlett was an artist who used painting, sculpture, and prints in her art to portray the African-American and female experience. She used influences from both African art as well as Mexican art, having moved there in the late 1940s. One of her most famous works, Sharecropper (1952), highlights the trials of a female tenant sharecropper. In an interview quoted by the New York Times, Catlett stated that “I have always wanted my art to service my people - to reflect us, to relate to us, to stimulate us, to make us aware of our potential.”

3. Lorraine Hansberry

Lorraine Hansberry has the historic honor of being the first black female playwright to have a play produced on Broadway. Hansberry’s works centered on the everyday struggles of African-Americans. Her most famous play, A Raisin in the Sun, features a Black American family living in Chicago dealing with the effects of racial segregation when they try to improve their financial situation and move into a white neighborhood, a plotline inspired by Hansberry’s family’s own experience that eventually led to a Supreme Court case. Hansberry’s works and success helped to influence and pave the way for black writers and playwrights for years to come.

4. Faith Ringgold

Faith Ringgold is a painter, mixed media artist, writer, performance artist, and activist who uses a variety of materials and forms in her artwork that largely focuses on civil rights, African influences, and political activism. In addition to painting and sculpture, Ringgold is well known for her story quilts. One of her most famous, Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemima? (1983), depicts the story of a successful African American woman who breaks away from the ‘mammy’ stereotype, the black nanny character that images like Aunt Jemima and movies like Gone With the Wind reinforce.

5. Audre Lorde

Audre Lorde described herself as a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” Her works addressed issues concerning racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism. The complex intersectionality of her identities influenced her activism among many communities and led her works to transcend genres. She was a big proponent of criticizing society’s views on difference and insisted that we should celebrate difference instead of using it to create isolation. 

Each of these artists took their experiences and used them in their art to comment on the culture of the time. Dealing with different identities, reactions to the horrors of racism, and giving voices to everyday people made their works of art reach a wide and diverse audience and provide an influential platform for their activism. The messages instilled in their works transcend through the decades and are still relevant in today’s social and political climates.