7 Black Artists You Should Know
From working with Solange to being lauded by "Vogue," these women are lighting up the art scene.
Photo by Charlie-Rubin courtesy of Nina Chanel Abney
Throughout history, great works of art have been ascribed to the hand of “Anonymous,” their names erased and authorship denied. Virginia Woolf famously said, “I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.” Fortunately, we are now at a time to write and publish our histories, firmly inscribed. With Art Basel in Miami Beach heating up this weekend, here are seven black artists on our radar out here changing the game.
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, 41, is the quiet storm, whose intimate portraits of fictional figures famously inspired Solange’s “Don’t Touch My Hair” video. Like characters in a novel, they exist in their own world, inviting us into the mix and take a deep dive into the wells of imagination to discover the pleasures it brings. The South London-native born to Ghanaian parents paints what she knows best: the lives of Black women, men, and children in a moment of solitude or reveling in the group—and casts them in magical spaces that allow us to join them. In The New Yorker, Zadie Smith observed, “The figures themselves are the basis for your fantasy, with their teasing, ambiguous titles, women dancing to unheard music, or peering through binoculars at objects unseen. They seem to have souls.”
Mickalene Thomas, 47, dwells among the muses and honors them in her mesmerizing portraits and sequined odalisques that reveal a layered history told through wood-paneled walls and zebra print rugs, crocheted throws, and patterned gowns, thick afros, and soft, glowing skin—all the things you would see as a 70s baby growing up in Camden, New Jersey. At the very heart of it all, Thomas is inspired by Black women—beginning with her mother and first muse, Sandra “Mama Bush” Bush. “There was a really strong sense that the women in my family kept things together,” Thomas told ARTNews. By centering gender, race, sexuality, femininity, and beauty in her work, Thomas’s Black women are goddesses made flesh and restore their rightful place in the pantheon of Western art.
Nina Chanel Abney
Nina Chanel Abney, 36, came out blazing with Class of 2007, a monumental painting from her M.F.A. thesis show at Parsons, depicting her classmates as prisoners on the right, and herself as their white prison guard on the left. Abney, the only Black student in her class, told Vanity Fair, “It’s nothing personal.” It’s much deeper than that. Abney understood the impact of the statement she was making and the impact it would have on her career. The work was purchased by Miami collectors Donald and Mera Rubell, and included in 30 Americans, an exhibition of contemporary African-American artists which has been touring the U.S. since 2008. Over the past decade, its presence has become increasingly clear, as the focus on police brutality and Black Lives Matter movement reveals.
Juliana Huxtable, 30, is easily the most fascinating person in the room. Hailing from a conservative Texas town, Huxtable was born intersex and raised as a boy named Julian. She found her voice in fifth grade by writing short stories to deal with abuse and hasn’t stopped creating since. She moved to New York to study at Bard College, graduated, and then began her transition. Huxtable stole the show at the 2015 New Museum Triennial “Surround Audience,” with Vogue naming her its star. Now 30, Huxtable has traveled the globe with her innovative approach to art, performance, music, video, and fashion as the co-founder of Shock Value, a New York nightlife project and member of the artist collective House of Ladosha.
Toyin Ojih Odutola
Toyin Ojih Odutola, 33, began drawing as a way to adjust to the dramatic shifts that came after moving from her native Nigeria to the United States at the age of 5 years old. Creating portraits with a black ballpoint pen, Odultola began to discover the limitless possibilities of a single hue and medium, discovering new worlds at her command. In Odutola’s universe, the depth of blackness is without end, the dimensions infinite and unfathomable. “Growing up in America as a Black individual,” she told the Huffington Post, “you can walk into any room and your skin is the first read. From this reality, I treat the skin of my subjects as an arena to expose contradictions — to expand and constrict.” And, as she deftly illustrates, power and freedom lie in her hands for the taking.
During the 2018 edition of Made in L.A., Los Angeles-native Lauren Halsey, 31, unveiled the prototype for The Crenshaw District Hieroglyph Project, a temple-like structure and columns made of gypsum and plywood that incorporates hieroglyphics, storefront signage, portraits of neighborhood locals, and graffiti tags that would stand on the site of a former African market in South Central that Halsey frequented as a kid. Now, as the winner of the 2018 Mohn Award given by the Hammer Museum in the amount of $100,000, Halsey’s vision will be realized and given to the South Central community as a show of love. “I’m not interested in escapism,” Halsey told Art in America . “I’m interested in creating legible, real representations of who we were centuries ago or five minutes ago, and of who we can become five seconds from now or one hundred years from now.”
Jamilah Sabur is a Jamaica-born, Miami-based multidisciplinary artist who uses performance, video, sculpture, and installation to investigate the traces of history on our bodies, as we carry them forth in memory and ritual. She looks at the brutal legacy of occupation and colonialism, and the ways in which the hegemonic structures of Western imperialism continue to oppress the Global South following independence. In a video titled, “A History of Massacre (How do you prepare yourself for the possibility of becoming invisible?) ‘A hundred years after the U.S. occupation began, the désocupation has yet to come…,’” Sabur spells it out in the simplest of terms: What is the good of history if we cannot learn the lessons of the past?