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Contemporary Black artists are reclaiming their rightful place in the art world, offering profound and inspiring explorations into the themes of identity, heritage and representation.

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The fine arts have a long history of Western cultural dominance, with its codified rules, tools, mediums, and institutions. In particular, Western art has historically been dominated by a white male perspective and its associated representation. This has led to a systemic exclusion of people of colour and minorities that today continues to have repercussions. Black artists are under-represented in museums, cultural institutions and in the art market. Fortunately, this is (slowly) changing. From the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and 1930s and especially with the Black Arts Movement in the 1960s and 1970s, black people started to take charge of their own cultural representation and production in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement. During this period, Black artists were proud to represent their heritage and cultural identity. 

Contemporary Black artists are still challenging the status quo and re-claiming their rightful place in the art world. The rich and compelling art practice of Modern Black artists asks how the racial identity of an artist shapes and affects the way in which their art is created and perceived by the viewers. How do artists reconcile with their heritage and identity in such a complex global era? 

15 Contemporary Black Artists

The list includes renowned as well as emerging contemporary black artists who, through their art practice, are giving their unique contribution to the ongoing conversation about race, identity and representation. 

b. 1969 in Stockton, California. Lives and works in New York
Kara Walker is a conceptual artist who explores the themes of race, gender, sexuality and identity in her artworks. Walker is irreverent and provocative. She is best-known for her vignettes of big cut paper silhouettes portraying images of racial stereotypes, such as mammies and pick ninnies. In her works, she powerfully represents the origins of the systemic injustices and racial inequalities that are embedded in our cultural mores, in our history and in our myths. Walker is also a prominent modern black sculptor. Her latest sculpture: “Fons Americanus” 2019, was created for the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern in London. It is a large-scale fountain that not only challenges our idea of public monuments, but also represents the narrative of the origins of the African diaspora.  


Kara Walker, Fons Americanus, 2019 (detail Queen Vicky). Courtesy of Tate. Photo: Matt Greenwood.


b. 1955 in Birmingham Alabama. Lives and works in Chicago 
Kerry James Marshall’s oeuvre focuses on the depiction of subjects that are “unequivocally black, emphatically black”, as he describes them. Throughout his compelling and elaborated works, Marshall explores the idea of black identity in the US as well as in Western Art, adopting a wide array of pictorial traditions.

An affirmed contemporary Black painter, Marshall critically examines the Western canon, the works of Old Masters, the traditional notions of authorship and mastery, questioning the systematic erasure of black bodies and black artists. Marshall depicts richly-textured narrative scenes inspired from his personal life or historical events, exploring the effects of the Civil Rights movement on the life of African Americans. His painting “Past Times” (1997), sold for $21.1 million in 2018, becoming the most expensive painting of a contemporary Black artist ever sold in an auction. 


Kerry James Marshall, Untitled (policeman), 2015. Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York


b. 1994 in Dagenham (UK). Lives and works in London
Joy Labinjo is an emerging Black painter whose works explore different aspects of the African diaspora and celebrate her British-Nigerian identity. Her large-scale figurative paintings portray primarily scenes of family life both real and imagined. Labinjo uses  photographs from either her family albums or community archives as source material: she usually paints and rearranges them into a collage. Her work is able to give an intimate glimpse of places and people which extend across geographies and generations. As Lubinjo explained: “It was important to focus on normalising the black figure and the black family and give them space to exist on a gallery wall.”

With bright and vibrant colours, Labinjo creates interesting compositions that deal with the themes of memory and belonging and capture the fragmentary and delicate process of discovering our place in the world and our sense of self. Her last series of paintings, The Elephant in the Room, is born as a response to the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests in the UK. The series departs from her distinctive domestic subjects to explore racial politics in Britain. 


Joy Labinjo, It has always been home, 2020. Courtesy of Tiwani Contemporary


b. 1977 in Los Angeles. Lives and works in New York.
Working in portraiture, Kehinde Wiley is best-known for his depiction of black subjects in traditional settings found in Old Masters’ paintings. Wiley adopts the visual vocabulary of glorification, heroism and familiar iconography to give his contemporary, “urban” Black figures the same power that was long detained by only white subjects. He is also the first Black and openly gay artist to paint the potrait of an American President. His portrait of Barack Obama depicts the former president sitting in a chair surrounded by foliage, a representation of what has been described as a “man-of-the-people kind of power”.

Click here to read more about K. Wiley

Kehinde Wiley, Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps, 2005. Courtesy of artist; Brooklyn Museum


b. 1958 in Ventura (California). Lives and works in Los Angeles
Another prominent Black contemporary painter and sculptor is Henry Taylor. He is best-known for his vibrant, bold, loose paintings of the black experience. His subjects include family, friends, celebrities, homeless people, cultural figures, politicians, strangers, individuals in photographs and many more. Taylor is able to paint glimpses of mundane and transient moments of life with profound empathy and love. In “The Times Ain't A Changing, Fast Enough” (2017), he captured the tragic shooting of Philando Castile, who was brutally killed by the police. 


Henry Taylor, The Times Ain't A Changing, Fast Enough, 2017. Courtesy of the artist; Whitney Museum of American Art. 


b. 1977 in London. Lives and works in London.
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye is a British painter and poet. She paints imaginary Black subjects, in traditional resting poses, lounging, or reading. Her palette is predominately dark, with raw and muted colours. Such a characteristic palette together with the way in which she depicts her subjects create a feeling of stillness in time and space. Yiadom-Boakye’s paintings have a very distinctive timeless quality: there are, in fact, no references to a particular period in neither the style, fashion of the subjects (in particular, they do not wear shoes which usually serve as timestamps) nor in the background.

With loose gestural brushwork, Yiadom-Boakye is able to make her subjects’ mood, expressed in their contemplative expressions and relaxed gestures as well as in their posture, relatable to the viewer. All the individuals in her body of work are black, as the artist herself describes: “Blackness has never been other to me. Therefore, I’ve never felt the need to explain its presence in the work anymore than I’ve felt the need to explain my presence in the world”.


Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Razorbill, 2020. Courtesy of the artist; Corvi-Mora, London; Jack Shainman Gallery, New York


b. 1984 in Los Angeles. Lives and works in Los Angeles and Accra (Ghana).
Kenturah Davis is an emerging contemporary artist that uses text as a point of departure to create finely crafted portraits. She explores the power of language and its role in shaping our sense of self and our understanding of the world. Each line of text that Davis’ chooses is imbued with deep meaning: they are usually inspirational quotes, mantras or meditations. For her, the quality of a drawing line is no different to the quality of a written line, with the only exception that we have assigned meaning to the latter. The result is a synergic mix of form and content.


Kenturah Davis, Study for Entanglements, 2019. Courtesy of Jenkins Johnson Gallery


b. 1971 in Ziguinchor (Senegal). Lives and works in Keur Massar (Senegal).
Kassou Seydou produces large-scale figurative paintings that aim at capturing the essence of his ideal society: a society where humans live peacefully in harmony with nature. Abstract swirling patterns and warm colours usually surround human figures that result in hypnotic, calm compositions. As Seydou explained: “The influence of the colors and patterns that populate my work have their origin in my African daily life, where there is an incredible sensory diversity—the smells, the warmth, the bright colors, the patterns of the clothes”. Through his artwork, the black painter not only implicitly criticises contemporary political and social issues, but also depicts his vision of the future.


Kassou Seydou, Noflaye, 2017. Courtesy of iLAB Design.


b. 1953 in Portland (Oregon). Lives and works in Syracuse (New York).
In her production, Weems explores family relationships, sexism, cultural identity and justice. Her early artworks were more autobiographical, while her later pieces are more philosophical and conceptual. Carrie Mae Weems depicts Black subjects with the specific intention to have a better understanding of the present, by investigating the past as well as Black cultural identity. She employs different means and mediums. In “From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried”, the artist reflects on the role of photography in supporting racism and social injustices, and in shaping stereotypes. The artwork takes shape starting from  twenty-eight appropriated photographs of slaves in the South of the US as well as from photographs of Africans and African Americans taken in the 19th and 20th century and stored in museums and universities.

Weems re-photographed, enlarged and printed these pictures in blue and red tones, adding texts to give a voice to the portrayed subjects, who historically had no voice. The artwork is forceful, as it helps us to reflect on the power dynamics involved in artistic representation.  


Carrie Mae Weems, From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried, 1995-96. Courtesy of MoMa


b. 1976 in Plainfield (New Jersey). Lives and work in New York.
Hank Willis Thomas is a conceptual artist whose body of work focuses on themes that are related to media, popular culture, and cultural identity. He uses a variety of mediums and he usually incorporates recognisable advertising images and products to explore the issues of contemporary society. Willis Thomas is particularly interested in advertisement because of “its ability to reinforce generalisations developed around race, gender and ethnicity which are generally false, but [these generalisations] can sometimes be entertaining, sometimes true, and sometimes horrifying”. In his series, “Unbranded: reflections in Black By Corporate America'', the artist strives to unveil the visual advertising strategies that are based on harmful stereotypes. By “unbranding” ads taken from popular magazines targeted to a black audience, Willis Thomas reveals how commodity culture’s gross generalisations are embedded in our consumerist society.  


Hank Willis Thomas, Caramel Cocoa Butta’ Honey Lova- You’re Like No Otha’, series: Unbranded, Lambda Photograph, 1982/2006. Courtesy of the artist


b. 1926 in Los Angeles. Lives and works in Los Angeles
Betye Saar was a member of the Black Arts Movement in the 1960s and since then contributed significantly to the creation of a black aesthetic. She is best-known for assemblage and collage works. In her prolific and highly political oeuvre, she profoundly challenged negative ideas and stereotypes about African Americans. Saar uses everyday objects that she transforms into artworks. As she explained: “I'm the kind of person who recycles materials but I also recycle emotions and feelings, and I had a great deal of anger about the segregation and the racism in this country”.


Betye Saar, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, 1972.


b. 1971 in Camden (New Jersey). Lives and works in New York
Mickalene Thomas draws inspiration from art history and pop art to create complex, colorful artworks that explore ideas around race, sexuality, beauty, sense-of-self and gender. Her use of craft materials, which she started using as an affordable option in art school, developed into a conscious historical reference to women making art. Thomas works on paintings, collages, photography, video and installations that are able to capture unapologetically her Black woman gaze. Through these, she is able to fulfill the drive and desire to represent her imagery and herself, lovingly donating to others the possibility of seeing themselves represented. 


Mickalene Thomas, I Just Wanna Be With You, 2007. Courtesy of Sotheby's


b. 1988 in Baltimore (Maryland). Lives and work in Baltimore
Jarrell Gibbs portrays family memories, very often taking inspiration from Polaroids of banal moments. Gibbs is able to transform these memories and ordinary moments into extraordinary scenes rich in emotional resonance that illustrate well the complex and multilayered experience of the African American diaspora. His paintings are an invitation into the artist’s personal world, his emotions and memories. 


Jarrel Gibbs, Until Tomorrow, 2020. Courtesy the artist and Mariane Ibrahim


b. 1962 in London. Lives and works in London
Working with different mediums, such as painting, sculpture and installation, Yinka Shonibare explores the themes of colonialism and post-colonialism within the contemporary context of globalisation. Through the use of ironic reference to Western art, his body of work not only gives an incisive and sharp political commentary on the interrelationship between Europe and Africa, but also questions the validity of national identities and contemporary culture. He describes himself as a “postcolonial hybrid”. Shonibare uses distinctive bright and colourful African fabrics in his art, which he buys at the Brixton market in London. 


Yinka Shonibare, Cbe - Air Kid (Boy) 2020. Courtesy Of James Cohan Gallery.


b. 1985 in Ide, Nigeria. Lives and works un New York
Toyin Ojin Odutola is a visual artist who produces detailed and eccentric multimedia drawings and works on paper. Her artworks touches different themes such as queer and gender theory, blackness, the legacy of colonialism, and the experiences of dislocation. She adopts an unique style of mark-making using basic drawing materials: pencils, ink, pastels and charcoal, from which she builds up layers on the pages creating highly detailed portraits. Her artworks are inspired by art history, popular culture, as well as her own personal history. Ojio Odutola is able to create powerful narrative drawings and vivid fictional worlds. She strives to not simply add Black subjects into a traditionally white space but at the same time to push the viewer to think beyond representation, to question the implications of power, and to reflect on who can tell stories about the world.


Toyin Ojih Odutola, To See and To Know; Future Lovers, 201). Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman


Cover image: Henry Taylor, Zepher’s House, 2008. Courtesy the artist and Blum & Poe

Written by Francesca Allievi

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