The History of Black Art

By Kyra Chambers •  Updated: 07/12/20 •  15 min read

Art has always been a part of human existence. Especially black art.

Since the beginning of time, the peoples of the world have used art as means of communication, expression, and even a means to document history, as can be seen in the caves on ancient Egyptian kings and queens.

The special thing about visual art is it leaves the world up to the artist’s interpretation.

In a world where historically, black people haven’t been allowed to be the most vocal, some found solace in art.

The History of Black Art

And as a young Black woman, I’m so glad they did.

Black Art Mirrors Black History

We know before slavery, nations in Africa were full of art, sculptures, statues, tribal cloths, etc.

So much of that culture was lost in the middle passage, and on the selling block when slavers purposely separated people from their tribes.

This was an intentional plan to prevent any uprising or pride a slave may have in themself. However, talent is something that cannot be stripped from a person.

Some of the earliest African American visual artists came during slavery.

Slaves by in large did not have access to formal education, and particularly not art training, even for the few that did learn to read and write.

If they were lucky enough to be taught a special skill it was usually to entertain slave owners. Though few and far between, they did exist.

African American artists had a hard time breaking into mainstream culture.

Black Art Sculpture

Much like Black culture, Black art is influenced by both traditional African culture and Western culture forced upon them. 

But, Black artists have been creating thought-provoking art for centuries.

Not at the same volume as mainstream artists because of things like slavery, and systemic racism preventing Blacks from education, and jobs that would afford them to be able to buy the supplies needed to be an artist.

One of the first African American artists to receive recognition in America was Joshua Johnson (also spelled Johnston).

He was from Baltimore, Maryland, and gained recognition between 1790 and 1825.

Known for his portraits, Johnsons was born from a slave mother an aristocrat father and given his freedom by the age of 21. Like many other Black artists who emerged at a time when blacks were not allowed to be educated, Johnston was a self-taught painter.

Most of his work focused on children of the aristocratic families of the day and some Black subjects, one of which was Daniel Coker, a founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Though as early as the 19th century we see the first Black artists receiving national and sometimes international praise for their work, it is not until later that we see black artists emerge into mainstream culture.

Slavery played a large part in how little Black art was created and perceived, but abolitionists were instrumental in helping the first black artists in America get the little notoriety that they did get.

Though spread around and few and far between, African American visual artists did exist in the 1800s, and not just as painters.

Joshua Johnston was the first to received national recognition but the 19th century saw several African American artists emerge like Robert S. Duncanson, Edward Mitchell Bannister, and Henry Ossawa Turner were all notable artists of the period.

Some artists like Turner had formal training from the Philadelphia Academy of The Fine Arts, and some were self-taught.

Those who were self-taught not only speak to the beauty of the creative’s mind; having the vision, but also the resourcefulness that African Americans are known for.

Even so, it has continued to be hard to gain recognition and praise from the dominant culture.

Black Art After Slavery

Black art and slavery

Post-slavery, the next notable wave of black artistry was ushered in with the Harlem Renaissance.

It was a beautiful time for black artists and the most celebrated historical awakening for Black Americans thus far.

We had more access to education and new experiences which is why we saw so many artists come out of this period.

When we think about the Harlem Renaissance we often think about the writers and singers, Langston Hughes comes to mind first, but the visual artists were just as present.

The roaring 20s as they are commonly referred to, was a time of fun and enlightenment for Black people in America.

After war, abolition, and struggle, the post-slavery South was no place for Black Americans. They faced new dangers like Jim Crow laws, the Klan, and sharecropping which meant a life of debt.

Ushered in by what became known as the Great Migration, Midwestern and Northern cities saw an increase in Black residents moving North for better opportunities for jobs and life outside of the racism of the South.

New York City has always been it’s own melting pot within the larger cauldron that is the United States, and the new free blacks were no different.

For the first time, we were seeing areas with high concentrations of Black people who were educated, working, and thriving in predominately black communities. 

Unlike the artists before them, in the Harlem Renaissance, Black artists began painting Black families and faces.

Briefly, I want to touch on how the economic shift of free African Americans shifted the art world.

Staring in the Harlem Renaissance, African Americans finally had their own homes and money to spend.

Giving Black artists not only a target market but a network of other artists to work with.

Whereas before, we see the artists of slavery being mulatto, passing for white at times using that to their advantage for mobility, and only painting white faces and landscapes mostly.

The Harlem Renaissance meant so much more to the upward mobility of African Americans.

Gone were the days where Black artists needed white recognition because with freedom and income they could afford to put on their own shows in their communities.

Although the Great Depression (1929-1939) devastated the country, it also created opportunities for African American artists.

With aid from the Works Progress Administration (WPA), Augusta Savage was able to lead the Harlem Community Center and The New Deal’s Federal Arts Projects encouraged Black artists to create art for upliftment.

However, as we forged into the 50s and 60s racial tensions in America once again began to rise, taking the focus away from art and creation and pushing it to equality and desegregation.

The art created was powered by the idea of Black Power and Civil rights.

Charles White and Jeff Donaldson were two Black visual artists who emerged on the scene amidst the Civil Rights Movement.

Charles White was a Chicago born activist and artist knows for his paintings, drawings, lithographs, and murals.

Artists have a responsibility to activism, or at least that’s how Charles White Saw it, “Art must be an integral part of the struggle,” White insisted. “It can’t simply mirror what’s taking place. It must ally itself with the forces of liberation.”

This quote is powerful and captures the essence of Black Art.

Black Artists for sure make art because we like creating, but our lives almost force us to commit our art to the cause.

The Black Power Era introduced a new era of the black aesthetic. Black skin was in, afros, and expressions of love for black life were all the rage.

So, it is no surprise that in the 80s, came Jean Michael Basquiat who would be the first African American Art superstar.

A punk kid who first piqued people’s interests as an unknown graffiti artist, Jean Michael Basquiat had almost a following almost immediately.

He also worked with artists like Andy Warhol.

Basquiat’s use of words, numbers, and his overall style made him stand out.

His contributions to art were instrumental in pushing black art in the 90s.

Basquiat was the first black artist to receive acceptance from mainstream critics, which meant people were finally starting to give much overdue credit to Black artists.

The 80s was the first time in history that Black art exhibitions could be found at multiple mainstream galleries throughout the United States and even abroad. In the 1990s, Black Art excelled on mainstream levels.

Lorna Simpson was the first black woman to present art at Venice Biennale, allowing the most marginalized of people in the United States, black women, to take center stage as the world looked on.

Success Against All Odds

Looking at the evolution of Black art, it’s hard to believe it has existed as largely as it did at a time when many black people were not privy to the arts.

Even so, the ones that were, were not widely accepted among the dominate culture.

Not in life, and most certainly not in the arts.

According to the Smithsonian American Art Museum website, Edward Mitchell Bannister was harshly critiqued by a reviewer who said, “… the negro has an appreciation for art while being manifestly unable to produce it.”

This statement was published in the New York Herald in 1867.

There was a lack of appreciation for Black artists which fits the racial climate of the time. However, even without the acceptance of the masse, they continued to create and be great artists. 

Today more Black artists are emerging than ever before.

As art mediums continue to expand past the traditional mediums like painting, sculpture, drawing, more artists are turning to digital media, graphic design.

Black Art

Performance arts are also among styles emerging from new Black Artists.

Some of the popular Black Artists of today are Kara Walker who is known for her silhouettes, installation pieces, and films.

Kehinde Wiley is another prominent black artist of today who does mostly portraits of African American Faces.

One of his more famous pieces is his recent portrait of 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama.

Cartoons, Media and The Evolution of Black Art

The history of African Americans in animation is much like the history of Blacks in this country – not good until more recently.

Much like older movies, older cartoons also feature caricatures of negative black stereotypes.

Before Black men and women were allowed to act alongside whites, white people would dress up in blackface.

If you look at the early animation of Black people, the characters resemble a mix between people dressed in blackface and exaggerated features such as large noses and large pinks lips.

Attached is a link to early animated black cartoons, including some examples of the aforementioned. It’s jarring to see the blatant racism and colorism, much of which still exists today.

Entertainment powerhouses like Disney and Warner Bros have both had to pull scenes and movies from their collections.

As the Civil Rights Movement brought in new expectations about what was acceptable and what was not mainstream media outlets had to get on board.

Disney removed characters and scenes from movies like Fantasia and Dumbo.

While Warner Brothers had to remove entire films, such as Coal Black and the Sebben Dwarves, along with 11 other permanently shelved films from their entire catalog.

For historical context, here’s a list of racist cartoons from America’s past.

Over time, black cartoons proved to be profitable with the emergence of shows like Fat Albert and The Harlem Globetrotters.

But they would still have the token black friend. Like Susie Carmichael on Rugrats, Vince on Recess, and the list goes on.

The 90s brought us Bebe’s Kids the first Black Animated Comedy of its type. Voiced by Comedian, Faizon Love, Bebe’s Kid’s was an instant classic amongst black families.

The early 2000s gave us shows like The PJ’s and The Proud Family, both fully black cartoons. The PJs was special because it was the first black, animated, adult series.

Aaron McGruder’s The Boondocks took Cartoon Network by storm with its hilarious satire style.

The Cleveland Brown Show was another that came as a spin-off of the widely accepted Family Guy. But the main character was still voiced by a white voice actor up until his recent resignation.

Equality Representation is The Goal

Boscoe Holder Art

Black art has long been in existence and for a long time it only got as much exposure as the mainstream would give it.

We are entering a time now where Black culture is rivaling the dominant culture in mainstream society.

The mix of social media and the desire of younger Black people to support and buy black has been a big push.

If that’s not weird enough, we’re starting to see more characters of color on the silver screen, in everything from regular roles to superheroes, villains, and everything in between.

Representation matters, for sure. And we are seeing more black representation and more of the right representation.

Today, with new technology and more access, there are more Black artists than ever. Including myself.

Especially in the graphic design field, creating everything from cartoons, logos, video games, music videos, and just about anything the mind can dream.

Black Americans continue to deal with discrimination in all areas, but particularly in the world of art and media.

The earliest cartoons, a clear reflection of society at the time, featured racist art such as characters with overly exaggerated noses and lips.

Production companies even used incorrect grammar for film titles and pushing every stereotype of Blacks that we still see.

There are so many different types of art within the realm of Black art. From painting to drawing, murals, and sculptures, Black people have proven to be among some of the most brilliant artistic minds.

As technology advances, times change, and we gain more access, we continue to see just how beautifully artistic and creative Black people are.

We’ve always been colorful and vibrant. But for the longest, our wild hair-dos and colors were seen as ghetto, and not expressive or even artistic in some cases.

Now magazines are full of traditional Black Hairstyles on non-Black women. As Black faces and minds start to occupy more creative spaces, I both look forward to and roll my eyes at how mainstream culture will use the black aesthetic.

For black artists, the fight to get mainstream notoriety is an uphill battle.

Why Black Art Matters

Why does Black art matter?

The same reason representation matters.

Art is another way of storytelling. Storytelling is a method of preserving history. Black art expresses the feelings of the moment but also serves as a history lesson for Black children.

Augusta Savage said in Metropolitan Magazine in 1935, “I have created nothing really beautiful, really lasting, but if I can inspire one of these youngsters to develop the talent I know they possess, then my monument will be in their work.”

She so simply, and eloquently explained why Black Art matters so much.

Just recently we saw networks canceling shows like Cops and Live PD because not only do they perpetuate police violence, but they also push negative stereotypes.

This is why representation is so important.

Representation for Black People by Black creatives is even more important. No one can tell our story better than us!

For years mainstream media and Hollywood have whitewashed the Black experience to fit the narrative of the stereotypes we once all believed.

People worldwide have misconstrued ideas about how African Americans live because of what they’ve seen on television. By having more black artists, especially visual artists, it allows Black People the ability to control the narrative, and talk about what’s real and true.

Black life isn’t perfect.

It’s not always the typical beauty, but by letting non-Black artists and gatekeepers decide what black art makes it to the masses. It removes us from our power to decide what is a real and true and representation of the culture.

We don’t get to see a lot of Black aesthetics.

Outside of trauma and history, we don’t get to see a lot of black storytelling in general. But, the Black Experience is so much more than our trauma and our history.

Black Art is also important because it paves the way for Black youth to become Black artists.

With Equality, How Many More Basquiat’s Could There Have Been?

Basquiat became a junior member of the Brooklyn Museum at the age of six.

Imagine how many more Black Artists could be produced if more kids just had the exposure to at least see what an art career looks like.

Basquiat’s popularity in the 80s is a sheer example of how Black culture has this unspoken coolness that allows it to infiltrate mainstream culture.

Made popular by the use of the phrase SAMO in his work (meaning same old shit), and crown on the heads of Black men.

Basquiat was a big part of the transformation of Black culture becoming popular art culture. He was unapologetically Black and showed that in his images and actions alike.

Not only that but he also opened doors for many artists after him. And that is why Black art in all capacities matters.

The History of Black Art

In Memory – 50 Famous Black Artists

  1. Aaron Douglass, Painter
  2. Alfred Conteh, Sculptor
  3. Allan Rohan Crite, Painter
  4. Augusta Savage, Sculptor
  5. Beverly Buchanan, Sculptor
  6. Boscoe Holder, Painter
  7. Charles Alston, Sculptor, Painter
  8. Charles, Searles, Painter
  9. Claude Clark, Painter
  10. Deborah Willis, Photographer
  11. Edmonia Lewis, Sculptor
  12. Eldzier Cotor, Painter
  13. Ellis Wilson, Painter
  14. Emilio Cruz, Painter
  15. Emma Amos, Painter
  16. Erin K. Robinson, Illustrator
  17. Eugene Warboug, Scilptor
  18. Faith Ringgold, Painter, Sculptor
  19. Fred Wilson, Painter
  20. Fredrick Brown, Painter
  21. Gwendolyn Knight, Sculptor
  22. Herbert Gentry, Painter
  23. Jacob Lawrence, Painter
  24. James Van Der Zee, Photographer
  25. Jean-Michael Basquiat, Painter
  26. John Rhoden, Sculptor
  27. John T. Scott, Sculptor
  28. Joseph Delaney
  29. Joshua Johnston, Painter
  30. Kara Walker, painter, installation artist
  31. Kehinde Wiley, Painter
  32. Kenneth Victor Young, Painter
  33. Kerry James Marshall, Painter
  34. Laurie Cooper
  35. Leslie Garland Bolling, Sculptor
  36. Lois Mailou Jones, Painter
  37. Malvin Gray Johnson, Painter
  38. Mark Bradford, Painter
  39. Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller
  40. Oliver Lagrone, Sculptor
  41. Palmer Hayden, Painter
  42. Renee Cox
  43. Richmond, Barthe, Sculptor
  44. Robert Duncanson Jr., Painter
  45. Romare Bearden
  46. Sam Gilliam, Painter
  47. Samuel Felrath Hines Jr., Painter
  48. Theresa Bernstein, Painter
  49. Tina Allen, Sculptor
  50. William H. Johnson, Painter

Kyra Chambers

Kyra Chambers, also known as Kyra The Creative is a Photographer, Artist, and Multi-media Designer. She's been taking pictures since 2016. She loves to capture memories for families and impactful images for professionals.