My Top Ten Black Contemporary Artists

In honor of Black History month I thought I would list my favorite artists of African descent working today. Now I don’t claim to be an expert in the field, just another art – lover with a blog and an opinion. To distill this list down to only ten names took some doing, there were many who got left out who perhaps really belong here. All comments are welcome, and if you think of someone who should be added to the list let me know. I’m sure I haven’t seen every great black artist working today… maybe we can discover some new talents together.


10. Kehinde Wiley

“Prince Tommaso Francesco of Savoy–Carignano”, 2006; oil on canvas

For most of Kehinde Wiley’s very successful career, he has created large, vibrant, highly patterned paintings of young African American men wearing the latest in hip hop street fashion. The theatrical poses and objects in the portraits are based on well-known images of powerful figures drawn from seventeenth- through nineteenth-century Western art. Pictorially, Wiley gives the authority of those historical sitters to his twenty-first-century subjects. In 2005, VH1 commissioned Wiley to paint portraits of the honorees for that year’s Hip Hop Honors program. Turning his aesthetic on end, he used his trademark references to older portraits to add legitimacy to paintings of this generation’s already powerful musical talents. In Wiley’s hands, Ice T channels Napoleon, and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five take on a seventeenth-century Dutch civic guard company.


9. Kerry James Marshall

“De Style” by Kerry James Marshall

Alabama born and California raised, Kerry James Marshall is famous for creating large-scale paintings and sculptures and other art objects depicting African American life and culture. Early on he developed his unique style of depicting African American figures in jet black paint.  His work often deals with the effects of the Civil Rights movement on domestic life, in addition to working with elements of popular culture.


8. Mark Bradford

Mark Bradford’s “Wear The Bracelet” 2008


Mark Bradford’s wall pieces initially look like giant maps – intricate topographies of cities – and as one approaches them, tiny colorful details become apparent. Carefully looking at the works creates the effect of zooming in from an arial view to a street level view of a cityscape.

These large scale rectangular collages are entirely made from found materials, materials that Mark gathers as he goes out into the city. He describes his work as a “technique of locomotion without a goal.”However rather than drifting without motive, Bradford drifts through Los Angeles with the goal of gathering materials to assemble precious art works.


7. Glenn Ligon

Neon Sculpture by Glenn Ligon

Glenn Ligon works in multiple media, including painting, neon, video, photography, and digital media such as Adobe Flash. Much of Ligon’s work is in direct response to his experiences as an gay black man living in the United States.

Even though he is a multi media artist, painitng remains at the core of his creative activity. His paintings incorporate literary fragments, jokes, and evocative quotes from a selection of authors, which he stencils directly onto the canvas by hand.


6. Carrie Mae Weems

“Mourning” from the “Constructing History” series

Primarily a photographer, Carrie Mae Weems is a socially motivated artist whose works invite contemplation on issues surrounding race, gender and class. Increasingly, she has broadened her view to include global struggles for equality and justice.

A recent retrospective, composed of more than 200 objects—primarily photographs but also written texts, audio recordings, fabric banners and videos— provided an opportunity to trace the evolution of Weems’s career over the last 30 years. Although she employs a variety of means and addresses an array of issues, an overarching commitment to better understanding the present by closely examining history and identity is found throughout her work. A notion of universality is also present: while African-Americans are typically her primary subjects, Weems wants “people of color to stand for the human multitudes” and for her art to resonate with audiences of all races.


5. Kara Walker

Slihouettes by Kara Walker

Kara Walker is best known for her room-size constructions of black cut-paper silhouettes that examine the underbelly of America’s racial and gender tensions. Her works often address such highly charged themes as power, repression, history, race, and sexuality.


4. Barkley L. Hendricks

“Sweet Backs”  hand tinted silver gelatin print by Barkley L. Hendricks , 1976

Barkley L. Hendricks is a contemporary American painter who has made pioneering contributions to black portraiture and conceptual-ism. While he has worked in a variety of media and genres throughout his career (from photography to landscape painting), Hendricks’ best known work takes the form of life-sized painted oil portraits. In these portraits, he attempts to give a proud, dignified presence to his subjects, most frequently urban people of color. Hendricks’ work has been noted as unique for its combination of both American realism and post-modernism.

Barkley L. Hendricks’ large-scale paintings and photographs epitomize black American urban style. His portraiture works infuses a certain romanticism into realistic depictions of contemporary black people. Dignified and fashionable, his subjects aren’t generic types but recognizable human beings.


3. Michael Ray Charles

Michael Ray Charles “Whie Girl T.V. Dinner”

The art of Michael Ray Charles has been concerned with exploring the legacy of historic stereotypes related to Americans of African descent. In his brightly colored paintings and prints, he employs such characters as Sambo, Aunt Jemima, and Uncle Tom to comment on contemporary racial attitudes. Given the potentially incendiary nature of these stereotypes, Charles has frequently been at the center of controversy. In a 1999 ARTnews article—which included this portrait by French photographer Patrick Demarchelier—Charles explained, “Every time I have a show there are some black folks complaining.” Yet his success in eliciting strong reactions from his viewers seems to please Charles, who added that he finds this work “beautiful.” Charles has taught at the University of Texas at Austin since 1993.


2. Fred Wilson

Fred Wilson: Mine/Yours, 1995

Coming from an extremely diverse background, conceptual artist Fred Wilson describes himself as of “African, Native American, European and Amerindian” descent.  Wilson, being the only student of color in his early eduction, was shunned by classmates for being “different”.

An installation artist and political activist, Wilson’s subject is social justice and his medium is museology. In the 1970s, he worked as a free-lance museum educator for the American Museum of Natural History, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Crafts Museum. Beginning in the late 1980s, Wilson used his insider skills to create a series of “mock museums” that address how museums consciously or unwittingly reinforce racist beliefs and behaviors.


1. Willie Cole

“Sole Brother”  found object sculpture  by Willie Cole

Willie Cole’s art is best known for assembling and transforming ordinary domestic and used objects such as irons, ironing boards, high-heeled shoes, hair dryers, bicycle parts, wooden matches, lawn jockeys, and other discarded appliances and hardware, into imaginative and powerful works of art and installations.

Employing the repetitive use of single objects, Cole’s assembled sculptures acquire a transcending and renewed metaphorical meaning, or become a critique of our consumer culture. Cole’s work is generally discussed in the context of postmodern eclecticism, combining references and appropriation ranging from African and African-American imagery, to Dada’s readymades and Surrealism’s transformed objects, and icons of American pop culture or African and Asian masks, into highly original and witty assemblages. Some of Cole’s interactive installations also draw on simple game board structures that include the element of chance while physically engaging the viewer.


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