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Rewriting History: Powerful Black Female Artists.

Related articles: The meaning of Shadows in Kara Walker's workWomen in the Art World - 25 Most Iconic Female Painters! - A Spotlight on Women in Contemporary Art - The current role of women in the art field

The Art World, and Art History, have always represented the dominant White and Male perspective, but thankfully things slowly improving. Who are the Black Female Artists who are finally being recognised in a biased system? Why is it that when we look up ‘artists’ the top results never show women? Why is it rare to find female artists, but even rarer to find Black female artists?

A Western, white-male perspective has created a wide gap in the Art World. Years of white washing have silenced voices all over the world.

However, it is difficult to find a quick solution to centuries of inequality, injustices and under-representation. In fact, even now this gap persists, with the big institutions in the Art World only just realising that they need to be active and offer platforms to those voices which are too easily silenced by their white counterpart.

In the 1920s-30s, the Harlem Renaissance was a pivotal moment for Black artists It represented a true revival of African American Heritage, Black Culture, traditions, an all sorts of Art! With the Civil Rights and the Black is Beautifulmovement, many Female Black Artists, particularly African-Americans, took the chance to speak up, loudly rejecting and redefining traditional standards of Beauty. They spoke powerfully through their works of racism, feminism, violence, slavery, and exploitation.

Since then, there has been progress, but the gap still remains. 

However, auction houses, galleries, museums and collectors are slowly becoming more inclusive towards Black Women Artists. 

Artsy is organising auctions, Sotheby’s and Christie's are increasingly including Black Art, it is becoming more frequent for a Contemporary Art Museum to include under-represented artists in their collections and actively discussing the effects of Colonialism, Police Brutality, and Inequality. For instance, the Tate hosted Contemporary Artist Kara Walker's installation a couple of years ago, and the Brooklyn Museum opened its doors welcoming BLM protesters last year.

An infinite list should be written and incorporated in every collection to actually make a difference, but here is a selection of 30 Black Female Artists, who fight, or have fought, for their voice to rightfully be heard and valued as much that of White Artists, in a system which finds it too difficult to adopt a different perspective and truly include Black Culture.

Through their incredible works they demolish harsh stereotypes, and as Black Women they present their own experiences on how our cultures influence Black life.

1. Laura Wheeler Waring

Born in Connecticut (USA) in 1887, Laura Wheeler Waring was a painter and taught Art at University for over 30 years. Among the artists displayed in the country's first exhibition of African American Art in 1927, she is best known for her commissioned portraits of African Americans made during the Harlem Renaissance. She lived in Paris and spent much time in the Louvre Museum studying masters like Monet, Manet, Corot and Cézanne, and developing a more vibrant and realistic technique. Her use of vivid colours, light, and atmosphere is remarkable. 

 

 

Laura Wheeler Waring (American, 1887-1948). Woman with Bouquet, ca. 1940. Oil on canvas, 30 x 25 in. (76.2 x 63.5 cm).
Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn Museum Fund for African American Art in honour of Teresa A. Carbone, 2016.2. © artist or artist's estate

2. Alma W. Thomas

Born in Georgia (USA), Alma Thomas was the abstract modern artist par excellence. Living as a Black Female Artist, she encountered many difficulties, yet to contrast this she focused on representing beauty and happiness in her paintings, “rather than on man's inhumanity to man”. She developed a highly personal style that expanded upon traditional Abstract Expressionism – especially the notion of Colour Field - and Washington Color School practices. In her work, she experimented with stripes and lines, shapes and patterns, exuberant colours and twisting compositions.

 

 

Alma Thomas, Apollo 12 "Splash Down", 1970, The Studio Museum in Harlem

 

3. Loïs Mailou Jones

Over an impressive 7 decades, Loïs Mailou Jones produced a great selection of works. Her career took off thanks to her textile designs, but she also produced many paintings and drawings. At a time when racial and gender prejudices pervaded society, her oil paintings were imbued with brilliant and lush colours, rich patterns and references to Haitian and African Culture. Her strong sense of design and inspired vivid acrylic and watercolour paintings were ‘proof of the talent of a black artists’ even if her fondest wish was to be known as an ‘artist, without further labels’.

 

Loïs Mailou Jones, “La Baker,” 1977, acrylic and collage on canvas, Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts

 

4. Gwendolyn Knight

Gwendolyn Knight was a painter and sculptor originally from Barbados. She moved to New York in the 1930s joining the Post-Harlem Renaissance Movement. She became known artist in a later point in her life. Knight developed narrative oil paintings depicting the life, culture, and history of African Americans, through still life, portraits, and urban scenes. 

 

 

Gwendolyn Knight, Girl (self-portrait), Silkscreen on paper, edition of 75, Overall: 17 x 15 7/8in. (38.1 x 40.3cm).
Courtesy of DC Moore Gallery, New York; ©2017 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

 

5. Faith Ringgold

American painter, Civil Rights activist and author, Faith Ringgold became famous for her narrative and innovative quilts which tell stories of her life and people in the Black community. Taking inspiration from African art, Impressionism, and Cubism, her early paintings from the 1960s focused on the underlying racism in the everyday. She switched from painting to fabric to get away from the association of painting with Western/European traditions. ‘The American People Series’ - her first political collection - portrays the Civil Rights Movement and illustrates these racial interactions from a woman's point of view. 

 

Faith Ringgold, American People Series #20: Die, 1967, Oil on canvas, two panels, 72 × 144" (182.9 × 365.8 cm)
Acquired through the generosity of The Modern Women's Fund, Ronnie F. Heyman, Eva and Glenn Dubin, Lonti Ebers, Michael S. Ovitz, Daniel and Brett Sundheim, and Gary and Karen Winnick

Related articles: Cecilia Alemani the first Italian woman who will direct the Venice Biennale

 

6. Emma Amos

Emma Amos is a talented postmodernist African American artist. Moving to New York, she faced great difficulties in getting visibility and being respected in a dominantly male art scene, facing continual racism, sexism and ageism. Despite the multiple obstacles encountered, she continued to talk about race and sex politics in her work. Inspired by Paul Gauguin, Lucian Freud and Pablo Picasso’s symbols, subjects and structures, she combined painting, printmaking and African textiles on large-scale figurative and feminist, deconstructive and seamless works of art.

 

Emma Amos, All I Know of Wonder, 2008, oil on linen, African fabric, 70 1/2 x 55 1/2". © Emma Amos/VAGA, New York

 

7. Howardena Pindell

American painter and mixed media artist Howardena Pindell first created refined abstract compositions of ovals and circles on paper and canvas, and then moved on to her celebrated punched-hole collaged compositions. This untitled work on paper is an excellent and rare example from the 70s of her exploration of texture, colour and structures. Her large-scale non-figurative paintings address issues of racism, feminism, violence, slavery and exploitation with great influences from the Black and Feminist movements.

 

Howardena Pindell, Untitled, 1972–1973, acrylic and cut and punched papers on canvas. Arthur and Margaret Glasgow Endowment © Howardena Pindell

 

8. Suzanne Jackson

Visual Artist, gallery owner, poet, dancer and set designer, Suzanne Jackson has had a long, intense and varied career in the Arts. In 1968, in LA, she opened Gallery 32, a community-oriented space where she hosted exhibitions by emerging Black artists. She has made paintings since she was a child, and her recent works are sculptural and organic made with acrylic paint, detritus and ephemera. Her dominant subjects are dreamy images of Black figures with birds and flowers, but some of her pieces are more abstract and organic, where the details refer back to the style of her early works.

 

Suzanne Jackson, El Paradiso (1981–84). © Suzanne Jackson. Photo: David Kaminsky, courtesy of Telfair Museums

 

9. Mickalene Thomas

African American Mickalene Thomas is a visual artist using predominantly rhinestones, acrylic and enamel. She draws inspiration from well-known artistic movements, such as Cubism, Dada and the Harlem Renaissance. Her works blends pop culture with visual culture and art history, creating complex portraits of black female sexuality, beauty and power. She embellishes her powerful and confident models with rhinestone decorations and stages the figures in classic poses and abstract settings. Her paintings, collages, photography, videoand installations, play with textures, colours and the boundary between real or fictitious scenes.

 

Mickalene Thomas, Tamika sur une chaise longue avec Monet, 2012. Rhinestones, acrylic, oil and enamel on wood panel, 108 x 144 inches © Mickalene Thomas

 

10. Wangechi Mutu

Kenyan American Wangechi Mutu is a prominent international artist known for her works in painting, sculpture, performance and film. With collages and combined images, she represents cultural trauma, self-image, gender constructs and environmental destruction, combining humans and machines, plants, antiques and modern images. Her works are visually compelling showing sensual, organic Black female figures.

 

Wangechi Mutu, The Bride Who Married a Camel’s Head, 2009, Mixed media, ink, and collage on Mylar, 106.7 x 76.2 cm.
© Wangechi Mutu and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects. Photo: Mathias Schormann

 

11. Amy Sherald

Amy Sherald has revitalized the genre of portraiture with elegance, composure and formal balance. In her pictures, the subjects are African American. Working from staged photographs, her pieces present a simplified realism which transmits a message as well as the power of her studied compositions. They confront the psychological effects of the stereotypical imagery of African American subjects, and the societal standing of the people she depicts re-setting the traditional canons of identity, revisiting what an official portrait is, and writing Black history.

 

Amy Sherald, Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama, oil on linen, 2018. Courtesy National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

 

12. Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

British painter and writer of Ghanese origin, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye is well-known for her imaginary figures, painted with sudbued tones. Contributing to the Renaissance, each composition is built with colours, tones and textures. Yiadom-Boakye integrates characters, scenes and atmospheres creating a ficticiou story. Emerging from rich misty layers of paint, the figures of her paintings are not bound to a precise moment in time or a specific place.

 

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Medicine at Playtime, 2017, oil on linen, 78 3/4 × 47 1/4 in. (200.03 × 120.02 cm)
© The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

 

13. Esther Mahlangu

Esther Mahllangu is a South African artist, whose works take direct inspiration from patterns and palettes of Ndebele house painting and beadwork. Her works are colourful, abstract and geometric compositions. She has collaborated with many brands and received a lot of international attention. However, Esther Mahlangu still lives and works in her village, having set up an Art School in her backyard, sharing and passing on traditional practices.

 

Esther Mahalangu, Ndebele Design III, 2018, Courtesy of Artnet. ©2021 Artnet Worldwide Corporation.

 

14. Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum

Pamela Sunstrum is a painter and illustrator driven by a fascination with Ancient Mythology and scientific theories. Her works on paper and wood make use of a range of different media, including pencil, ink, watercolours, gold leaf and gouache. Born in Botswana, and having lived in Southeast Asia and in the United States, she explores the concept of identity within temporal, geographic and cultural contexts. The relationship between the female body, the notions of the sublime and the idea of a landscape are paramount in her work. The world she creates is both futuristic and ancient – at the same time they represent a tangent reality and abstract fantasies. 

 

Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum, Quadra 04, 2016, watercolour and gouache on wood panel.
Image courtesy the artist and Tiwani Contemporary, London

 

15. Nina Chanel Abney

Nina Chanel Abney's work combines figurative and abstract, tackling themes of sex, race, policing and the Internet. In her turbulent paintings, with particularly colourful hues, she creates a sense of ‘overload’ typical of our contemporary culture, where all sense of separate identities and definite time frames are lost. She plays with race as a fluid concept mixing her subjects with pop culture, landmarks, television and Art History. Using widely known emoji-like symbols, numbers and stencils, Abney conveys her message in a bold, powerful and playfully graphic way.

 

Nina Chanel Abney, Penny Dreadful, 2017, acrylic and spray paint on canvas, 84 x 120 inches © Jack Shainman Gallery

 

16. Njideka Akunyili Crosby

Njideka Akunyili Crosby is a prominent Nigerian-born visual artist working in Los Angeles, California. Just as in her life, her works see two very different cultures meet, reflecting her own experience. Crosby applies layer to layer of photographic transfers, paint, collage, pencil drawing, marble dust and fabric to enormous paper surfaces enlivened with scenes from private life. In her paintings, populated by black people outfitted in a mix of Western and Nigerian clothes, the figures merge with their surroundings, in a fragmented mosaic of people, objects and textures.

 

Njideka Akunyili Crosby, The Beautyful Ones Series #7, 2018, Acrylic, color pencil, and transfers on paper, 42 in.× 59 7/8 in.
© Njideka Akunyili Crosby © Victoria Miro Gallery

 

17. Toyin Ojih Odutola

Black ink large-scale drawings are the signature of Toyin Ojih Odutola, the award-winning contemporary American visual artist who was born in Nigeria. Her most recent work has expanded to include different media, such as charcoal or pastels, to enrich the textures of her glowing figures. By writing and drawing fictional aristocratic family sagas, she visualizes an alternative present for Africa as if colonial conquest had never happened. Ojih Odutola's work challenges the traditional categories of portraiture and storytelling, visually deconstructing narratives about race, identity and class.

 

Toyin Ojih Odutola, Pregnant, 2017. Charcoal, pastel and pencil on paper, 74 1/2 x 42 in.
©Toyin Ojih Odutola.  Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

 

18. Jennifer Packer

Jennifer Packer creates intimate and expressionist portraits, interior scenes and still life where the main subjects are always her closest friends, relatives and lover in a specifically selected palette of colours. The colours are blended and used in opposition. Depth is given as she scrapes off, or only uses a thin layer of the paint. She plays with transparency in her unique technique. The result is an emotionally rich atmosphere.

 

Jennifer Packer, Graces, 2017, oil on canvas, 60 x 72”, Courtesy of the artist and Corvi-Mora, London

 

19. Janiva Ellis

The young black American star Janiva Ellis makes exaggerated paintings with cartoonish visual vocabulary and characters, drowning the viewer in a psychedelic abyss. Working in Los Angeles, Hawaii and New York, Ellis gets her subjects from pop culture, everyday racial dynamics, police brutality and Art History. ‘Doubt Guardian 2’ has incorporated an early composition by German master Neo Rauch in the background. In fact, she translates the experiences that inform her adulthood and the imagery found in existing paintings in a playful and comic way.

 

Janiva Ellis, Doubt Guardian 2, 2017, Courtesy of the artist and 47 Canal, New York

 

20. Cassi Namoda

An illustration by Mozambique-born painter, fashion designer, art curator, and even perfumer, Cassi Namoda appeared on the cover of the January 2020 issue of Vogue Italia. A portrait of the black model Ambar Cristal Zarzuela dressed in Gucci who burst into tears, after a mosquito bite. For Namoda, her practice is a conscious artistic exploration of her own childhood spent travelling the world, and is also a reflection on the African Diaspora. Early 20thcentury German and Austrian Art has influenced her work, creating a romantic imagery of unfiltered and tender, honest female portraits.

 

Cassi Namoda, Ice cream in Mozambique, 2018, Acrylic and collage on panel, 14h x 11w inches, © Cassi Namoda

 

21. Tschabalala Self

In 2018, Harlem-born millennial artist Tschabalala Self explores ideas about the Black female body, juxtaposing painting, printmaking and discarded pieces of her previous works. With a feminist perspective, Tschabalala Self challenges the objectification of Black Women in pop culture by re-working the widespread imagery used in music videos. The gigantic broken-down bodies that she depicts have exaggerated physical characteristics and augmented details, creating a new rhetoric around African American identities and honouring Black women from history.

 

 

Tschabalala Self, Out of Body, 2015, oil and fabric on canvas, 72 x 60 inches
 Courtesy of Thierry Goldberg

 

Related article: The last 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale at Phillips London

 

22. Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi

South African American artist Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi works in painting, film, installation and performance. She combines a minimalist geometric aesthetic with themes of social justice. The subjects are either directly architectural or give hints to blocks and lines of constructions, with people inhabiting the spaces she creates. The people become part of her geometric compositions, politicising them. It creates a dialogue between them and the bold coloured lines which separate and connect.

 

Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi, Salute, n.d., Courtesy of Avantart ©MMXX Avantart.

 

23. Emma Prempeh

Emma Prempeh is a British painter based in London. Winning multiple awards, the subjects of her works are family, generational continuity and relational ties. She explores the connections, the idea of memories, ancestral ties and an underlining fear of death. Her compositions are balanced yet always transmit a tension, between emptiness and fullness. There is a constant gap which affects the subjects and how we see them. It is an emptiness that no matter what, we cannot fill.

 

Emma Prempeh, Red, White, Blue and Brown, 2020, Courtesy of Gillian Jason Gallery.

 

24. Deborah Roberts

Deborah Roberts is a mixed media artist whose work questions the common understanding of ‘Ideal Beauty’. She sees her work as a social commentary, making room for women who are not included in the stereotypical imagery of Venus, idealised myths taken from Renaissance artists and photographs in fashion magazines. She talks about how the imagery influenced the way she perceived herself. Her works answer the need to critically reconstruct our idea of Beauty and the authority of the Female Figure.

 

Deborah Roberts, That’s not Ladylike no.2, 2019, Courtesy of the Artist.

 

25. Sungi Mlengeya

Sungi Mlegeya is a Tanzanian self-taught artist who works mainly in acrylic. Her paintings are free and minimalist depictions of people in rich shades of black and brown. The bare arms, heads and legs contrast with the white areas of the canvas. This draws our attention to the people, their relations, their identities and their emotions. It is an empowering depiction of the personal stories, intimate identities, struggles and great accomplishments of their lives, in an empty space which is freed from social norms and restrictions.

 

Sungi Mlengeya, Four Friends, 2020, Courtesy of the Artist.

 

26. Sophia Oshodin

London-based artist Sophia Oshodin is a ‘self-taught figurative storytelling painter’. Her works are colourful and visual fictitious stories of domestic interactions, covering family connections, female representation and empowerment. She draws from African Art and Culture, Art History, African Dutch prints, photography, everyday life and childhood memories. Her works address the dynamics of identity construction, in a celebration of the journey.

 

Sophia Oshodin, Untitled III (For all that we have), 2021, Courtesy of Saatchi Art.

 

27. Cinthia Sifa Mulanga

Cinthia Sifa Mulanga was born in Lubumbashi, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. She uses different techniques, such as intaglio and silk screening, painting, collage, drawing, photography and sculpture. Winning her numerous awards, her work explores Beauty constructs through lived experience. She recreates domestic spaces integrating photographs from magazines. Female silhouettes dialogue with each other, questioning and challenging perceived beauty standards and stereotypes.

 

Cinthia Sifa Mulanga, Consensual and Consumption, 2021, Courtesy of African Arty ©2021, African Arty.

 

28. Damilola Onosowbo Marcus

Damilola Onosowbo Marcus questions the borders between the lived and perceived. Her imagery is inspired by analogue photographs, with a slightly overexposed scene, flashed by a light which flattens the people and objects represented. This creates a misty atmosphere in all of her works. Her brushstrokes are free, yet the overall effect is realistic and candid. Her subjects are instants of daily life, captured moments and flashes of family life.

 

Damilola Onosowbo Marcus, Untitled, 2021, Courtesy of Affinityart.gallery.

 

29. Virginia Chihota

Artist Virginia Chihota reflects on intimacy, the human figure and personal experiences in her work. She addresses themes such a childbearing, marriage, kinship, grief and faith. Her works carry illusions to everyday life, religious and folkloric symbolism. She uses patterns, prints, textures and layers. Having trained as a printmaker the works are a studious original readaptation of this medium, giving a sense of materiality, bold contrasts and graphic effects. Her works are organic, nearly abstract at times, transmitting a sense of a collectivity, a whole, and how experiences connect people.

 

Virginia Chihota, Kana Kuterera Kuchikuda Chibairo Ndiani Achagamuchira Chibairo (When Obedience is better than Sacrafice who will accept the Sacrifice), 2019, Courtesy of tiwani.co.uk ©2021 TIWANI CONTEMPORARY.

 

30. Zina Saro-Wiwa

Artist Zina Saro-Wiwa works primarily with video, but also uses photography, sculpture, sound and food. She maps emotional landscapes in her works, exploring personal experiences through the dynamics and choreographic patterns which characterise them. She connects the internal and external, bridges cultures, bringing environmental or geographic aspects into the pieces. She questions the idea of a landscape and geography and the separation between reality, performance and truth.

 

Zina Saro-Wiwa, The Invisible Man, 2015, Courtesy of Manpodcast.com.

 

 

 

Written by Petra Chiodi and Zoe Zanello

Cover image: Loïs Mailou Jones, “La Baker,” 1977, acrylic and collage on canvas, Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts

Stay Tuned on Kooness magazine for more exciting news from the art world.
 

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