Contemporary Artists You Should Know

C Michelle
12 min readOct 15, 2017

Autumn Knight

Knight is a Houston born and based interdisciplinary artist, who uses installation, text, and performance work to critique issues surrounding reproductive justice, religion, feminism and race.

Knight + Knight Latencies, 2015. Performance. image: http://autumnjoiknight.com/latencies/

One such work, Knight+Knight Latencies, a performance in which Knight performs with another artist, Chelsea Knight, to explore the complexities of their similarities and differences as women who share the same last name. For me, this work illustrates the blurring of the color line that whites in the United States have tried so desperately to preserve through law (anti-miscegenation) and social order (one-drop rule: quadroon, octoroon, etc) and the myth of racial purity. During the performance, Knight and Knight, use their bodies to engage in dialogue about the differences of their lived experiences as Black and white women. Styled as a dinner party, lecture, and therapy session, they weave together a narrative that shows the complexities of womanhood in a raw and imperfect way.

Cassils

Performance artist, body builder, and trainer Cassils hails from Montreal, Canada, and utilizes their body as a form of sculpture. Challenging gender and the binary, Cassils embodies the process of “becoming” and visually critiques histories and ideas. Cassils now works in Los Angeles, California.

Becoming an Image still 9, 2012-current. Photography. image: http://cassils.net/portfolio/becoming-an-image-2/

One of my favorite works of theirs is Becoming the Image, in which performance, photography, sculpture and the archive come together. Merging media, Cassils’ body transcends various forms of medium in an attempt to become the image.

While Cassils’ website does not include the archive in this work, I argue that the archival nature of the photographs being taken represent the image and idea of a thing, a simulacra if you will. While the archive can be violent, and most often is for gender nonconforming bodies, I think Cassils aims to challenge that by using their body to mimic the reverence we often give to sculpture by becoming that image. In doing so, Cassils takes back that power and rethinks what it means to canonize bodies.

Lili Bernard

I was first introduced to Cuban American, Los Angeles-based artist Lili Bernard last year when I was researching Black women’s art that included themes of water. Her breathtaking oil paintings caught my eye and I became enamored with her work dealing with race, gender, water, suffering and movement/post-colonialism. She is informed by her own experiences as a rape survivor to create narratives about enslaved African women surrounding the Middle Passage.

The Sale of Venus (after Sandro Botecelli’s The Birth of Venus, 1486), 2011. Oil on canvas, 63"x96". Image: http://lilibernard.com/site/artwork/antebellum-appropriations/

The Sale of Venus (after Sandro Botecelli’s The Birth of Venus, 1486), from the Antebellum Appropriations series is the first piece I saw and it I was flooded with ancestral memories upon looking at the visibly bloodied and pregnant center figure, mimicking Botecelli’s Venus, as she waits for her fate at a slave auction. Flanked by Santería and Catholicism imagery, I see the duality between looking back to Africa and looking forward to the New World.

Toyin Ojih Odutola

I first saw Odutola’s work this spring when I was in San Francisco, for a conference, at The Museum of African Diaspora (I first encountered the work of the two following artists a MoAD as well). The Nigerian-born, New York-based artist creates drawings with various mediums, which inspired and captured my eye as a mixed media painter. The exhibition I encountered, entitled A Matter of Fact , was presented against these beautiful orange walls, highlighting the vividness of color and detail against the black figures in the paintings. Using an orange wall challenges the white box and pushes the paintings forward for the viewer to see, rather than the bleakness and washed out optics of white walls at other museums and galleries.

A Matter of Fact series, 2016. charcoal, pastel, and pencil on paper. Various sizes. Image: Charlena M. Wynn at MoAD

Presenting this fictionalized aristocratic African family, Odutola challenges our perception of wealth and what it means to be Black. Indifferent and lazily posed, the figures allow the materiality of the objects to speak to the viewer, in which we must come to terms with performance of wealth.

La Vaughn Belle

Like Odutola, I encountered La Vaughn Belle’s work at MoAD, at the Where is Here exhibition exploring place and home for African descent artists. Born in Trinidad and Tobago, La Vaughn Belle works and lives in the U.S. Virgin Islands. In undergraduate, during my only African Art class, we spent less than a day discussing modern and contemporary African and African Diaspora art and the influence the Dutch had as a colonizing force on parts of Africa. Therefore, when I walked into the exhibit and saw La Vaughn Belle’s piece, Chaney, I instantly gravitated towards the Willow-esque pattern and wanted to learn more about her work exploring colonization.

Chaney (we live in the fragments 001–005) , 2014-present. Oil painting on hardboard. Image: Charlena Wynn at MoAD

Chaney, is a colloquium of “China” and “money” the artist says on her website. “It describes shards found in the dirt on many properties and locations throughout the Virgin Islands that often resurface after a hard rainfall. Originally from pieces of colonial fine china imported both in display of and as a result of the wealth of the plantation economy, “chaney” serves as a reminder of both the colonial past and the fragmented present of Caribbean societies.” The fragmented pieces in the dirt highlight the two large paintings, illustrating the fractures of colonized bodies at the expense of white supremacy and wealth. In addition, this work is reminiscent of the way cultures under colonization are forced to renegotiate identity and sense of place.

Helina Metafaria

Metafaria is an Ethiopian-American interdisciplinary and performance artist who’s work explores concepts of transnationality, movement, body and gender. Her work has taken her all over the United States, performing in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. to name a few. While I was unable to see her live performance of Home|Free at MoAD, her work included video that documented her performance and process of making art, which added additional element of sensory to this work. As an artist, educator, and future curator, I enjoyed this form of didactic as it did away with the use of words to help visitors to follow the artist’s work.

Video, sculpture and photo installations, titled “Divination: Watching Fate Unfold” and “Divination: Mapping the Unknown” from Home|Free. 2017. Image: http://www.helinametaferia.com/home-free/1

Home|Free uses the artist’s body to explore concepts of physical space and what it means to be home. The markings and layering of planks are physical manifestations of placement and building home. Metafaria says of the work: Home | Free explores the use of home-building materials as art objects and the visual language of maps, lines, text, and movement — all tools to help the body navigate the world (2017). In addition, she includes other building materials and assemblage items throughout the solo exhibit to create a sense of home. In doing so, I found myself comparing this work to that of altars and collection spaces (ie. museums, galleries, etc.) and how the home functions as both.

Marinella Senatore

Italian interdisciplinary and performance artist, Marinella Senatore lives in Paris and London, and uses her work to critique labor conditions, white supremacy, and social structures. Drawing from movements that use the spectacle to draw social change, Senatore is inspired by marching bands and the like to inform her art, encouraging local communities to participate in making an art.

Modica Street Musical 121 Backstage, performance. 2016. Image: http://www.marinella-senatore.com/index.php?/modica-street-m/performance/

One of her latest works, Modica Street Musical, is both an exhibition and performance. Inspired by public ceremonies and civil rights events in Italy, this performance features over 100 inhabitants of Modica, who worked collaboratively to create this 4 hour piece. As someone who is interested in community arts, I find this fascinating in how a community sees themselves and the assets they bring to art. “ Forms of protest by oppressed minorities re-emerge from the past of Sicily in the guise of music, choreographies and storytelling, to merge with the repertoires of bands, groups and other collective creations troupes composed by younger generations. The exchange between the legacy and the present is built through a new popular vocabulary that brings the musical back to its origins: a 19th Century North American society show genre for lower classes. The migrants, coming from the most diverse origins, in fact, found in this genre the chance to give form to a theatre of revolt that could speak emphatically to the biggest number of people, creating inclusion, avoiding higher culture codes and articulating ideas of emancipation and common good among working class people. In the same way the Modica Street Musical seamlessly juxtaposes classical music pieces and pop songs, engaged theatre and entertainment, mass movements and ballet choreographies,” (Matteo Lucchetti, 2016).

Jam

Jam is a Cincinnati, Ohio-based artist working in pencil, digital art, and mixed media. I’ve followed her on Tumblr and other social media for awhile now, I’m impressed with not only her skill but diligence and patience to continue working with her craft.

Untitled, 2017. Digital art. Image: https://www.instagram.com/p/BV7DiJ4Havt/?taken-by=mctecart

Her Instagram is regularly full of imagery from art challenges such as #inktober. Inspired by the world around her, her drawings and digital work are witty and fun, something that is often not regarded for Black art, which is often expected to emphasize pain and trauma and reproduced by viewers. In addition to digital work and drawings, she makes fantastic stickers and graphics! If you’re a Black Panther fan, you’re going to want to purchase one of her “Wakanda” stickers, phone cases, bags, shirts and more. I can’t wait to see where her art takes her.

Edie Fake

Edie Fake is a pretty mysterious artist, which I don’t blame as a queer gender non conforming person myself. The playfulness and exclusivity of Fake, including his website, adds layers to his work and I argue is performance in of itself. Born in Chicago, his comics, books, zines, and drawings bend gender much like himself, melding together gaming with quilting, queering two forms of art that are traditionally at two ends of the binary.

The Fitting Room, 2015. ink, acrylic, enamel and gouache on paper, 22x30. Image: http://westernexhibitions.com/artist/edie-fake/

While Gaylord Phoenix is one of his most critical and famous works, I am most impressed with his architectural drawings that juxtapose playfulness with physical space to illustrate self-definition of trans identities. Using architecture as a metaphor for constructing trans identities, Fake attempts to map a queer landscape through each of these drawings. So often, queer and trans identities are constructed by others, Fake’s work is critical not only for contemporary art, but feminist, gender, and queer studies and history.

Leonce Raphael Agbodjelou

In 2016, I began to explore Afro-futurism and what it meant for contemporary art and social justice efforts. In doing so, I stumbled across the the Tel Aviv exhibit, Regarding Africa: Contemporary Art and Afro-futurism, which featured artists working in or on the subject of Africa and African identities. What did it mean to have art work by African and African diaspora artists in Israel, a land that is dealing with its on displacement and colonization of people? While I was unable to travel to Tel Aviv before the show closed in May, I explored the website and found the art of Leonce Raphael Agbodjelou, a Porto-Novo, Republic of Benin-based photographer who’s 2011 Egungun series featured narratives of those caught between tradition and modernity.

Untitled from Musclemen series, 2012. C-print. Image: http://www.africa-tamuseum.org.il/artist/leonce-raphael-agbodjelou/

Musclemen series, features heavily muscled men, surrounded by floral motifs, sunglasses, and staged poses, mimicking a tradition of portraiture in western Africa. The beautiful patterns of their pants and the style of staged studio photography nods to tradition, while enveloping background alludes to the future. While I’m unsure of his intent, this layering of overly masculine with the feminine speaks to the difference of language of gender and sexuality construction in African countries and how queerness and gender in the West are not universal. I see these beautiful men against floral motifs and holding flowers, challenging our notions of “Blackness” and “Africanness” and verbalizing a new future outside of the binary of masculine and feminine that recognizes the fluidity of gender and sexuality.

Esther Mahlangu

Like Agbodjelou, I came across Esther Mahlangu’s work in the same show, Regarding Africa. Middleburg, South African born and Mabhoko, South Africa-based artist Mahlangu was taught beadwork and mural painting by her mother and grandmother, continuing the tradition of Ndebele women. Her highly contextualize pieces speak to that tradition and history of art making, drawing me into her work and that of process art and what it means for documenting culture.

Untitled, 1991. Acrylic on canvas. Image: http://www.africa-tamuseum.org.il/artist/esther-mahlangu/

Her geometric abstractions immediately grabbed me, as I have a love for deeply colorful and “simple” art like that of hers. However, I know that this art is complex, riddled with stories. The geometric shapes take on a language of their own, speaking to those who know the code. I am interested in carryovers from Africa in art and traditions that are merged with new ideas to make art. Mahlangu does just that, presenting the traditions and culture of the Ndebele people in her painting style of acrylic and cow dung. Her work can be seen on various types of surfaces including but not limited to canvas, sculpture, airplanes, and her most famous, her BMW art car (1991).

iQhiya

Recently formed young Black female artist collective, iQhiya, is making their mark in a heavily white and male creative sector in Johannesburg and Cape Town, South Africa. Rejecting an individualistic approach that most Western white artists use, iQhiya demands attention by working together to share their interdisciplinary art with others. Members work in sculpture, video, print and are at varying levels of their academic career. Speaking at the intersections of race and gender, iQhiya work does not deny valid anger from stories of childhood, the future, and the Black female imagination.

The Portrait, 2016. Performance and installation at Athens School of Fine Arts (ASFA). Image: http://www.documenta14.de/en/artists/13582/iqhiya

In 2017, iQhiya presented The Portrait and Monday at Documenta 14, in Athens, Greece and Kassel, Germany. From their twitter (2016), they state that The Portrait is about the pain and suffering Black women are expected to endure. Standing on glass Coke bottles in red crates, the young women used their own pain to articulate the struggles and strength of Black womanhood. I argue, using the Coke bottles, a symbol of capitalism, speaks to the ways that capitalism subjects Black women’s bodies and force them into silence. Taking up arms with Molotov cocktails, they illustrate Black women’s role in resistance and social movements. Their work in reflecting upon the history of Black feminism in South Africa and what that means for their bodies is beautifully presented, particularly on a stage that often silences others.

Dogon Krigga

Digital art and collagist Dogon Krigga presents Afro-futuristic works and is based in Columbia, South Carolina. They regularly show their work in galleries in Columbia, collaborating with other Black artists and working to amplify the voices of Black artists. Their queer and healing identities often come through their art and how they approach social justice, tackling issues of toxic masculinity, religion, and imagining futures for all Black people.

Demur from When God Was (A)!!!! series, 2016. Digital collage, 8x10. Image: https://www.facebook.com/ArtByKrigga/photos/a.373843485976155.107812.371001599593677/1534934436533715/?type=3&theater

While I enjoy all of their works, their series When God Was (A)!!! is to date my favorite. In their own words, they say that this series was created to uplift and heal the Sacred Feminine, which has been subject to injustice and harm from white patriarchal supremacy. This series speaks to toxicity of white patriarchal supremacy’s impact on the feminine and the ways that it has been violently disregarded. Dogon’s style of gray and sepia toned images juxtaposed against gold and geometric abstractions, most often leave viewers uneasy, unsure, and forced to reconcile with their own complicity in harming the Sacred Feminine. In addition to digital collage, Dogon is a masterful graphic designer and continues to inspire my own work with Afro-futurism. Their latest series, Libation (2017) is a collaborative work with “Roni Nicole Henderson and Cedric Umoja, is a visual and spiritual study of the nature of liquid, and the fluidity of energy and matter in the psychospiritual experience of Black people,” (Dogon Krigga, 2017).

--

--

C Michelle

Freelance social media manager. Artist. Writer. PhD student (on leave) + future curator. Contemporary African Diaspora art.