Last semester, I took an art history class for the first time in my life. I have always been an art appreciator, even an artist myself, but that class taught me to be an art analyst and understander–I feel that I have gained a better understanding of the purpose of art, on a general and more specific scale.
However, though the class was a survey from cave paintings to modernism, it still had gaps. Particularly when it came to non-European art. While European movements were discussed for weeks in class and took up hundreds of pages in our textbook, African and African American art were covered in a single day and a single chapter, and we skipped Asian art “for the sake of time.”
Titus Kaphar, an African American painter, discovered the same thing in his first art history class. In truth, curriculum and society in the Western World continue to prioritize European traditions over the rich history of other cultures. Black artists have always been present, and it’s time to stop hiding these incredible artists in footnotes and sidebars. Today, I hope to introduce you to some amazing Black modern artists whose work highlights the nuances of racism and untold histories.
1. Titus Kaphar
Born in 1976, Titus Kaphar is an American painter and sculptor who works to transform the styles and mediums of historical Black representation in art, as described on his website. He recreates artworks which feature the untold history of Black Americans and draws attention to absences, injustices, and inner depths. His work is dynamic–his process of revealing untold stories often involves cutting, tearing, covering, folding, and gluing. In his Ted Talk, Can Art Amend History? (2017) Kaphar discusses his experience as an art history student. He found the curriculum to be lacking information about Black subjects and artists, and thus he was inspired to begin his work as an artist. In the Ted Talk, he completes one of his infamous whitewash paintings titled Shifting the Gaze (2017), where he uses white paint to carve out a Black boy hidden in the shadows of a copy of a seventeenth-century family portrait. The boy is believed to be the family’s servant according to brooklynmuseum.org. Kaphar questions why we can find extensive information about the white family in the painting, but nothing about who this boy was. Thus, by painting the boy into focus, he advocates for rewriting history in a more inclusive way.
2. Kara Walker
Kara Walker, born in 1969, is said to be “among the most complex and prolific American artists of her generation” according to walkerart.org. She uses multiple mediums to explore the damaging legacy of slavery in America, including her cut-paper silhouettes that have received national and international recognition. The silhouette technique has roots in the Victorian art of shadow portraits, but Walker adapts the art form to a larger scale and applies it directly to a wall. The silhouettes depict historical narratives that are laced with themes of sexuality, violence, and oppression. Moma.org reports that her New York debut, Gone: A Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart (1994) explores all of these ideas with caricatured imagery that disrupts conventional power and gender dynamics. Walker also works with film and sculpture. Her website can be found here.
3. Amy Sherald
Amy Sherald, born in Columbus, Georgia in 1973 is a painter who is highly influenced by her time attending a mostly-white private school in her youth, according to nmwa.org. Her art is influenced by the issues of race and identity in the American South that she faced during those years and beyond. According to harpersbazaar.com, she is particularly known for painting her subjects in black and white as a way of challenging the concept of color-as-race, as well as for painting Black people in garb that is free of social context in labels. One such work is her painting They Call Me Redbone but I’d Rather Be Strawberry Shortcake (2009). In challenging the idea of racial identity as an essential attribute, Sherald questions whether race might instead by a performance in response to societal expectations. Her black and white skin tones provoke similar reflection, and encourage seeing a person first and their social identities second. Her instagram can be found here.
4. Omar victor Diop
For our last artist, I’d like to include one Black artist I actually did learn about in my art history course. Omar Victor Diop shares on his website that he was born in Dakar in 1980 and is a Senegalese photographer. He developed an interest in Photography and Design early on, and is interested in the diversity of African societies and lifestyles in the modern world. One of his most famous collections is titled Diaspora (2014), and it is a series of self portraits that Diop took, recreating portraits of notable Africans in European history. The project represents an awakening in which Diop realized how intertwined African history is with the rest of the world–and yet, it is often forgotten. He includes a soccer ball in each portrait, in order to represent the duality of glory and being “the other.” The soccer ball also serves as a reminder of the relevancy of his work. His other work plays with similar dualities, of past and present, of power and oppression, of Africa and its messy entanglement with the Western World.
These are just a few notable Black artists using their art to speak against injustice. I highly encourage any readers to do their own research on Black artists of past and present whose untold histories are deeply intertwined with the histories we are taught in school. In short, these artists teach us to read between the lines and look for the gaps in our curriculum, and to challenge the traditions and stereotypes that perpetuate our everyday lives.