As it’s black history month in the United States, I wanted to do a quick list of my favourite African American Artists. You can find out more information about some of them (noted in the text) in Derek Conrad Murray’s Queering Post-Black Art (I.B.Tauris 2016).
- If you like Matisse and Kandinsky, and have not yet explored the colourful paintings of Alma Thomas, you really should. Bright, playful, almost collage-like, Alma Thomas’ paintings are joyous and almost musical. While previously overlooked, there was a resurgence of interest in Alma Thomas’ work when, in 2009 , Michelle Obama picked two of her paintings to decorate the White House.
- Beauford Delaney was a modernist, renowned for his depictions of the Harlem Renaissance. However, I first became aware of him because of his portraits of James Baldwin and in my mind, Delaney’s pictures are inextricably linked to Baldwin. Delaney is most recognised for his pervasive use of yellow, often almost a chartreuse colour, especially in his portraits. Delaney believed that yellow held a specific spiritual significance and held properties of light, healing and redemption. However, I think that this is also interesting in the context of the historical representation of yellow as being connected to depression, insanity and illness. Delaney’s dynamic portraits possess a sort of duality, for me, that embraces both light and discomfort.
- Kehinde Wiley is a widely-celebrated painter and his naturalistic portraits both allude to and subvert the traditions of classical art. He depicts everyday men and women in poses and colours that recall classical artworks such as Clésinger’s Femme piquée par un serpent [Woman Bitten by a Snake] and Ecclesiastical stained-glass. In doing so, Wiley resituates Black bodies in the artistic canon and asks us to consider the role of race, sexuality and class in art. (Chapter 2 in Queering Post-Black Art)
- Mickalene Thomas’s paintings are simply beautiful. Rich in colour, she uses rhinestones, acrylic, enamel and collage to create dynamic women who are both challenging and stunning. The subjects of my favourites, such as I am your Sister and Moments Pleasure, appear to make eye contact, engaging with the viewer. Her subversion of Eduoard Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’Herbe, uses elements of collage and photography to address the politics of black bodies in Western art. In contrast to Manet, her three subjects are dressed up and all look out from the canvas. Her subjects have agency, and, notably, are not accompanied by men. In alluding to Western classical art, Mickalene Thomas draws attention to stark contrast in how white and black, male and female bodies have been treated historically in art. (Chapter 3 in Queering Post-Black Art)
Words by Clare Kathleen Bogen
Queering Post-Black Art by Conrad Murray is available now and can be ordered here