To Dream, to Collect

4.6/5 (10)

21 black female artists who, despite a white-centric and predominantly male art scene, have imagined, and still imagine, a contemporary world in which blackness is the norm. Through galvanic portraiture, abstract and luxuriant oils, illustrated fabrics, hybrid printmaking on textiles, sculptural and organic paintings, textured drawings, they demolish harsh stereotypes about women artists’ talent in wider terms.

During the Harlem Renaissance, the Civil Rights and the Black is Beautiful movements, many women painters of color, particularly African-Americans, rejected and redefined traditional standards of beauty and vitalized the black consciousness, undermining issues of racism, feminism, violence, slavery, and exploitation. The intriguing list we assembled is in chronological order, from the latest century’s Black female painters to the living.

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Laura Wheeler Waring

Painter and art educator - among the artists displayed in the country's first exhibition of African-American art in 1927 -  Laura Wheeler Waring is best known for her portraits of sophisticated or dignified working-class African Americans that she made during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, a flourishing period for the African-American arts. She lived in Paris and spent much time in the Louvre Museum studying Monet, Manet, Corot and Cézanne. From these artists, she refined her method: more vibrant and realistic. Her use of vivid colors, light, and atmosphere is remarkable. Related article: Monet, Van Gogh, Picasso, Modigliani at auction


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


Alma W. Thomas

Born in 1891 in Georgia (USA), Alma Thomas was the abstract modern artist par excellence. She developed a highly personal style that expanded upon traditional Abstract Expressionism - the notion of Color Field above all - and Washington Color School practices through experimentations with stripes and lines, shapes and patterns, exuberant colors and twisting compositions. Living as a black female artist, she encountered many difficulties, yet she had sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness in her painting “rather than on man's inhumanity to man”.


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


Loïs Mailou Jones

Over the impressive length of her career (almost 7 decades), Loïs Mailou Jones had produced paintings, drawings and textile designs in the context of the Harlem Renaissance. At a time when racial and gender prejudices pervaded society, she was capable of producing oil paintings imbued with brilliant and lush colors, rich patterns and references to Haitian and African culture. Her strong design sense and inspired vivid acrylic and watercolor paintings were “proof of the talent of 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


Gwendolyn Knight

Gwendolyn Knight was a charming painter and sculptor originally from Barbados, West Indies, who moved to New York in the 1930s joining the Post-Harlem Renaissance Movement. She emerged from the shadow of her husband Jacob Lawrence late in her life. Her art is "Never Late for Heaven” - the title of her first retrospective put on when she was nearly 90 years old at the Tacoma Art Museum in 2003. 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


Faith Ringgold

American painter, Civil Rights activist and author, Faith Ringgold became famous for her narrative and innovative quilts that 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 everyday activities. 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. She switched from painting to fabric to get away from the association of painting with Western/European traditions.

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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


Emma Amos

Emma Amos is talented, with an intellectual inclination, postmodernist African-American artist. Upon moving to New York, she experienced difficulty showing her work in a "man’s scene”, encountering great levels of racism, sexism, and ageism. Despite the difficulties, she persevered integrating race and sex politics into her work without becoming politically engaged. Combining painting and printmaking, linen or African textiles on a large scale and acrylic paint, Paul Gauguin Lucian Freud and Pablo Picasso’s symbols, subjects and structure, she creates 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


Howardena Pindell

The short period, from 1968-1970, was very significant for the American painter and mixed media artist Howardena Pindell. Pindell created refined abstract compositions of ovals and circles on paper and canvas before her celebrated punched-hole collaged compositions. This untitled work on paper is an excellent and scarce example from the 70s of her exploration of texture, color, structures. Her large-scale, nonrepresentational paintings address issues of racism, feminism, violence, slavery, and exploitation with great influences from the black power and feminist movement.


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


Suzanne Jackson

Painter, poet, dancer, teacher, curator and theatre designer. At 75, Suzanne Jackson has had a long and intense career. In 1968, in LA, she opened “Gallery 32”, a community-oriented space where she hosted exhibitions by an emerging black artist. She has made paintings since she was a child and her recent works are incredibly boundary-pushing: sculptural and organic paintings composed of acrylic paint, detritus and ephemera. Her dominant subjects are dreamy images of black figures with birds and flowers.


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


Lezley Saar

Lezley Saar’s artistry is a form of magical realism. As a painter, she commingles realistic details and fantastic incantations. Daughter of Betye Saar - the legendary African-American assemblage artist -, Lesley work is narrative, often inspired by good books and historical figures. Hybridity, acceptance, and belonging, along with performing identity are preponderant themes in her highly personal paintings and mixed media.


Lezley Saar, Detail from Bemused Resignation, from Monad Series, 2014. Mixed media on canvas, 16' x 12'. Collection Betzi Stein


Mickalene Thomas

American artist Mickalene Thomas draws inspiration from Art History early modernists such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Edouard Manet, blending it with pop culture to make paintings, collages, photography, video, and installations. Blurring the boundaries between concrete and abstract, real and imaginary, Thomas constructs complex portraits of black female sexuality, beauty, and power. She embellishes her powerful and confident models with rhinestones decorations and stages their figures on the classic poses and abstract settings popularized by the modern masters. Discover more: Galerie Nathalie Obadia Art gallery


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


Wangechi Mutu

Kenyan-American Wangechi Mutu is a prominent international Afrofuturist who imagines alternate realities for Africa, and people of African descent, through the medium of science fiction branched out in collage painting, immersive installation, and live and video performance. Her amalgamations of humans and machines, antiques and modern images, sensual black female bodies and grotesque textures are synonymous of body diseases, cultural trauma, self-image and gender constructs. Visually compelling and repulsive at the same time, her experimental aesthetics re-write the codes of femininity in our society.


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


Amy Sherald

Amy Sherald has revitalized the genre of portraiture with elegance, composure and formal balance. In her pictures, the subjects are African-American well-groomed, attractive or famous people, peculiar attribute to a simplified realism, worked from staged photographs. Although seemingly calm with no drama, the official portrait of the ex-first lady Michelle Obama reveals the scale of greatness, suavity, and eloquence. Its dynamism, through color, abstract shapes and the gaze’s power, confront the psychological effects of stereotypical imagery on African-American subjects and reset the traditional canons of interpreting black identity. Related articles: 51 Most Popular Contemporary Artists


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


Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

British artist and writer of Ghanese origin, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye approaches ambiguous fictional figures - existing not bound by time and place - and the complexity of painting black skin, mixing oranges, blues, yellows and red. Each composition is built out of colors, tone, texture and beauty. Each character comes to life through a combination of found imagery, sketches from the artist’s life, and storytelling. Yiadom-Boakye integrates characters, scenes and atmospheres in a sort of story or process which is not tangible, but built across a slow rhythmic body of work.


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


Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum

Pamela Sunstrum is a painter and illustrator driven by a fascination with ancient mythologies and scientific theories. Her works on paper and wood using a range of media including pencil, ink, watercolor, gold leaf and gouache, explore the sense of identity within temporal, geographic and cultural contexts. Born in Botswana and having lived in Southeast Asia and the United States, Sunstrum developed an alter-ego, Asme, simultaneously futuristic and ancient, representational and fantastical, that crosses traditional borders and expands into the universe. The relationship between the female body, the notions of sublime and the idea of the landscape are paramount in her work.


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


Nina Chanel Abney

Nina Chanel Abney's work, in colourful hues, explores themes of sex, race, policing and the internet. In her turbulent paintings, the game is to subvert the races of the subjects, from black to white and reverse: a provocative charade of all scenes of racially-driven brutality. Using widely emoji-like symbols, numbers and stencils, Abney streamlines her message and the spectrum of meaning. She continues to play with race as a fluid concept and with pop culture landmarks, including television and Art History - low culture versus high art - in equal measure. Related articles: MeetMe#24 | In conversation with Monique Meloche


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


Njideka Akunyili Crosby

Njideka Akunyili Crosby (born 1983) is a prominent Nigerian-born visual artist working in Los Angeles, California. Occupying these two worlds in collision, she applies layers to layers 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, it’s quite impossible to unravel the knot of figures and their surround, of materials and subjects, of skin colors and surface. Decoding Crosby’s sophisticated transcultural process requires a certain level of familiarity with Nigerian magazine ads, fashion and lifestyle pictures and affinity with the family album’s iconography. 


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


Toyin Ojih Odutola

Black pen ink large-scale drawings are the distinguishable signature of Toyin Ojih Odutola, the award-winning contemporary American visual artist (born in Nigeria in 1985). Her more recent work has expanded to include charcoal, pastel, and pencil to enrich the textures in her detailed, glowing and lavish figures. Ojih Odutola's work challenges the traditional categories of portraiture and storytelling and at the same time, it visually deconstructs narratives about race, identity, and class. By writing and drawing fictional aristocratic family sagas, she visualizes an alternative present for Africa as if colonial conquest had never happened. Related article: TEFAF New York


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


Jennifer Packer

Jennifer Packer creates intimate and expressionist portraits, interior scenes and still life where the main subjects are always her closest friends, relatives, lovers. With her selected palette of colors, ranging from bright red and dark purple to thick yellow ochre and shades of green and blue, Packer, surprisingly, gives life to illegible and distant imagery, resembling abstract paintings. In Graces, we see not figures, not bodies but humans with the surface partially scraped off with a deleterious solvent to the back of a brush. A black artist registering the transitional and unstable identity of black subjects with pathos and unexpected tenderness.Related article: Affective Affinities: the 33rd Bienal de São Paulo


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


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. Dividing her time between Los Angeles, Hawaii and New York, Ellis’ primary source materials are both pop culture, everyday racial dynamics and police brutality, and the canon of art. She translates all the experiences that inform her adulthood on found canvases and over existing paintings. In a whimsical and funny way, Doubt Guardian 2  has incorporated an early composition by german master Neo Rauch in the background. A contemporary “playfully extreme” approach to painting.


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


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 Zarzueladressed in Gucci who burst into tears, after a mosquito’s bite. For Namoda, her practice is a conscious artistic exploration of her own childhood, which was spent travelling the world, and a reflection on African-diaspora cultures. German and Austrian art from the early 20th century has influenced her work most to create romantic, kind of raw and amusing female figures.


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


Tschabalala Self

In 2018, Harlem-born millennial artist Tschabalala Self smashed her auction record at Christie’s with the painting Out of Body. Described as “the Anti-Picasso”, she explores ideas about the black female body, juxtaposing painting, printmaking and discarded pieces of her previous works. From a feminist perspective, Tschabalala Self challenges the objectification of black women in pop culture by re-working imagery from music videos. The gigantic broken-down bodies she depicts are exaggerated in their physical characteristics, in order to create whole new rhetoric around African-American identities and honour black women from history. Tschabalala Self is the sort of artist who emerges once in a generation. Related article: The last 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale at Phillips London


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


Written by Petra Chiodi

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

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