Ten Contemporary Black Artists Who Are Changing Perceptions of Blackness.
Langston Hughes, poet, writer, activist and one of the greatest exponents of the Harlem Renaissance, the 1920s movement that marked the explosion of African American creativity, said we “now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame … We know we are beautiful. And ugly too.”
In recent years, artists, writers and curators have been talking about a Black Renaissance, not just in the visual arts, but across the arts in general. There is a shift that is happening now in our visual culture, in part due to the Black Lives Matter movement, that is energising the contemporary art scene — and we are loving it.
Black people are beautifully multifaceted and contemporary Black art reflects that
As Black creatives, we have long striven to free ourselves from the ‘white gaze’, in other words to find ways of expressing ourselves and experiences and stories without reference to ‘Whiteness’. This is not easy to achieve as our contributions are often diminished to issues of race and racism. In spite of this, there are a number of artists who have found their agency to be free to be who they are and re-present us as who we can be.
Broadening images of Blackness
So who are these artists? I have decided to throw a spotlight on 10 contemporary fine artists (including one photographer) who are determined to expand the available range of ‘unseen’ images of Blackness in 2022.
Change doesn’t happen overnight. We have to be mindful that this shift is only possible because of the on-going demands that have been made on institutions to be more diverse and inclusive. Notably, three stalwarts of the British art scene: Lubaina Himid, Sonia Boyce and Yinka Shonibare — all of whom have made a massive contribution to the UK visual culture and paved the groundwork for other Black artists to follow. Last year, all had major exhibitions or contributed to exhibitions in the UK that changed the way we look at Black art. Lubaina Himid’s solo show at Tate Modern opened to much acclaim as indeed did “Life Between Islands’’ at Tate Britain, curated by Sonia Boyce, doyenne of the 80s Black British art movement, This long awaited survey on Caribbean British art from the 1950s is a mostly joyful (and sometimes harrowing) look back at Britain through the lens of the assembled artists. Incidentally, Boyce will be the first Black woman to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale this year. The Himid show and ‘Life Between Islands’ are still on, so check them out,
Yinka Shonibare Disrupts the Idea of Art
I was personally impressed by last year’s RA Summer show which was selected by Black British, Nigerian born Yinka Shonibare. For the first time since its inaugural exhibition in 1768, the Summer Exhibition featured over 50 notable artists of colour whose work and art practices have been marginalised by this major institution of contemporary art because they fall outside the Western art canon of beauty and art-making.
By bringing these works into one of the most prestigious art events at the Royal Academy, in the heart of Central London, Shonibare not only disrupted every notion about what art is and for whom, but showed his determination to eat at the head of the table rather than accept the crumbs that are usually tossed to Black people to scramble over.
Black British Women Artists to Watch
At the other end of the art continuum, I was delighted to see shows by two emerging young Black female artists, Rachel Jones and Sophia Oshodin (whose work I’ll be showing this year in an upcoming exhibition).
Both women are bringing fresh perspectives on the interior lives of Black people even though the former is an abstract artist and the latter a figurative painter.
In Somerset, Hauser and Wirth exhibited the work of sculptor Thomas J Price. Price’s large scale monumental sculptures engage with issues of representation and perception often using classical forms to challenge racial tropes that layer identities on his characters.
African American Artists Redefine Portraiture
Across the pond, in the US, African American artists are also shaking things up, including contemporary artists, Kehinde Wiley, Noah Davis and Kerry James Marshall. Another artist who is fast becoming a household name is Amy Sherald. Sherald had a major exhibition at Hauser and Wirth in June last year and is best known for her portraits of Black people in greyscale (grisaille, a mixture of black and Naples yellow). Her paintings emphasise social and racial injustices but also question our idea of a Black identity. Similarly, the young African American photographer, Tyler Mitchell. whose practice extends to video and fashion photography, explores ideas about culture and racial identity, but through a different lens.
Tyler’s images blur the definitions between commercial photography and art to explore history and ancestry. His iconic image of Beyonce wearing a McQueen dress in Pan African colours for the cover of Vogue Magazine, signified his understanding of fashion and art and how they can be used to recast ideas about Black female beauty and power. His use of symbolism was not lost on his audience.
African Artists are Questioning Old Narratives About Race
Africa too has its share of rising stars who are illuminating the global contemporary art scene. I’d like to draw attention to two artists whose work I’ve been following for a couple of years. First, the Nigerian painter, Oluwole Omofemi, whom I’ve mentioned in other blogs, but is always worthy of a ‘shout out’ as his portraits of Black women with large Afros are emblematic of Black self love. Personally, I can’t see enough of his work.
Second, the Mozambican self taught artist, Cassi Namoda. She might not be the most famous Black female African artist (yet), but her star is luminescent. Her allegorical paintings are deeply spiritual and imbued with the voices of her ancestors and racial consciousness that speak of the post-colonial experiences that have beset her country. Her debut show ’The Sun Has Not Yet Burned off the Dew’’ was an immediate success and her current solo show, “Forgotten Limbs,” with François Ghebaly in Los Angeles, is on view until 15th January 2022.
These ten rising stars are expanding our notion of Blackness and creating possibilities for the way we see and present ourselves through the visual arts. For more articles on contemporary Black art, news and art insights, head over to our website www.casildart.com
Sukai Eccleston is the founder of CasildART which is a not for profit social enterprise that promotes contemporary Black art on its online gallery platform and through in person exhibitions and events.