Black History Month: 5 Artists You Should Know

At Sparketh, we love sharing about artists who move and inspire us with their passion and creativity. In celebrating Black History Month, we wanted to share about 5 of the amazing Black artists who have made a lasting impact on history and the world of art. Some of these individuals influenced historical art movements, and others are currently shaping contemporary perspectives about history with their work.

Black History is Part of Art History

All of the artists discussed in today’s post are exceptionally talented, so maybe you’re wondering: “Why qualify it?” 

It’s true that you don’t always need qualifiers when talking about great art and artists. However, sometimes looking at the work of a particular group of artists can help you see and understand things that you otherwise could not.

The fact is that Black History has uniquely and significantly influenced art history. Moreover, it’s a side of art history that statistically has not received the exposure or representation that it deserves. It’s important that we talk about – and help change- that.

Representation: Past and Present

Historically, members of the Black community have been underrepresented and/or unacknowledged for their contributions to the art world. Even in recent times, black artists have been strikingly absent in art galleries around the United States.

A 2019 study (you can read it here) showed that, as an average, about 85% of the professional art shown in galleries was created by Caucasian  men. While it should be noted that women and all racial minorities received low representation as well, Black/African American artists made up the lowest proportional percentage–only 1.2% of the art on display in galleries around the nation was created by black artists. 

Being Part of the Conversation

There may be more than one reason for these findings. The study indicated that historical bias, difficulty identifying artists of the past, and a contemporary shortage of black artists are all potential contributing factors. However, as I think about this study and its implications, here are 3 practical conclusions we can take away from these findings:

 1. Representation always plays a role in the next generation. When kids see people who look like them in a certain career or following a particular dream, it can help them envision themselves doing that thing, too. Representation is powerful fuel. When there’s a lack of representation, however, it can be more challenging for kids to envision themselves in a particular role. There may be a contemporary shortage of Black artists (as the study also indicated), but there is also reason to suspect that the historic lack of representation for Black artists has do with that.

2. Art allows us to understand new concepts and perspectives in a way that bypasses language. Therefore, it’s even more important to showcase work by a greater diversity of artists. If we want art to tell the truth, it’s important to tell as many true stories as possible.

3. To improve the situation, we need to talk about it.  Since that 2019 study was published, museums around the nation are making more of an effort to diversify their exhibits by: representing a greater variety of artists, focusing more on Black artists, and talking openly about about why these changes matter. In aiding this endeavor, it’s important for us to remember black artists who have made an impact in art and history, and to recognize those who are currently using their talent to bring new perspectives to the world.

Black History Month: 5 Artists You Should Know

Here are just 5 of the many amazing black, American artists who have shaped the past, and are shaping the present, through their creativity.  I hope you enjoy learning a little bit more about each of them.

1.  Alma Thomas (1891 – 1978)

Born in Georgia in 1891, Alma Thomas moved to Washington DC in 1907. She would make a lasting impact on the nation’s capital,  nurturing artists and art appreciation there for many years to come.   Alma Thomas taught children in her school and church to create – and appreciate – art for almost 40 years!

In the 1960s, as a retired teacher, Alma Thomas began to develop her artistic style in a different direction. She experimented with abstract styles, color, and movement, creating the uniquely colorful, mosaic-like style that defines her work today. Much of her art was inspired by the bright flowers in her hometown and by man’s first trip to the moon. In a time of unrest and division in America, this artist chose to focus on joyful elements of life. She said: “Through color, I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness, rather than on man’s inhumanity to man.”

Today, her painting, “Resurrection,” is displayed in the White House dining room. It was the first work by a Black woman to be added to the White House collection of art. To this day, Alma Thomas remains well-known, not only for her beautiful creations, but for her personal legacy of warmth and joy.

2. Augusta Savage (1892- 1962)

Despite the fact that she often faced challenging circumstances, this Black female sculpture was a profoundly influential artist and art teacher. Augusta was a major figure in the the Harlem Renaissance art movement, and was the first director of the Harlem Community Art Center. She was also commissioned to sculpt a piece for the New York World’s Fair (1939) which symbolized the musical contributions of African Americans.

Despite her own significant contributions to the art world, this award-winning artist considered her role as an art teacher to be her greatest legacy. Augusta Savage was an inspiring person who reminds us to also continue to learn and to support others’ learning as well. The video below shows some rare footage of this artist at work!

3. Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960 – 1988)

Jean-Michel Basquiat lived a short, but prolific, life.  Born in 1960 to a Puerto Rican mother and a Haitian-American father, Jean-Michel was a self-taught artist who studied both art and the world and diverse cultures around him. As a young child, he became fascinated with human anatomy, which would become a running theme throughout much of his work.

In the 1970s, Basquiat became known for the thought-provoking graffiti art he painted on buildings all over Manhattan. He tagged them with the anonymous title, “SAMO.”  By the age of 21, the artist was creating art full-time, using whatever materials he could get his hands on. Anatomy, historical themes, identity, and oppression all played a role in his work. He continued to grow in acclaim and popularity and gained a rare status as a young and extremely successful contemporary artist. Despite his fame and success, however, Basquiat struggled with addiction. He died of an overdose in 1988 at the age of 28.

As recently as 2017, one of Basquiat’s untitled works sold for $110 million–the highest price on record for any work by an American artist. Jean-Michel Basquiat was a leader in the art movement of Neo-Expressionism, and his work continues to influence contemporary art and culture.

4. Bisa Butler (1973 – Present)

Bisa Butler is a unique contemporary artist based in New Jersey. Though she was trained a painter, Butler is best known for the art she creates in the form of detailed quilts. Butler combines vivid color choices, realistic details, historical photographs and traditional crafting methods to produce her textile masterpieces.

This artist is passionate about history, family heritage, community, and migration. The scenes that she creates reflects those themes, but so does her medium. Quilting has strong ties to women of the past and to Black History, too. Therefore, Butler’s work weaves together imagery and material to bring the past to life. She layers the fabrics in her work in a way that mimics layers in painting.

Bisa Butler combines textile crafting with artistic skill to tell the histories of Black families and figures in a previously untapped way. It will be exciting to see how her approach to art and historical crafting shapes future artists who are also interested in exploring the past. Check out the below video to see how she creates her amazing pieces.

5. Kehinde Wiley (1977 – Present)

Despite the fact that this artist’s portraits are photo-realistic and often mimic historical posts, his subjects are often presented in front of more dream-like backgrounds, full of bold colors and patterns. Often, the details in the background contain significance to the subject being painted.

In 2018, Kehinde Wiley was commissioned to paint the  portrait of former President Barack Obama for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. This made him the first black portrait artist to have the honor of painting a U.S. President (see more about this portrait in the video clip below). Wiley is also the founder of Black Rock, an artist-in-resident program in Africa that he started in order to better connect with African culture and foster artists and creativity there.

We hope you enjoyed learning about these 5 inspirational Black artists and their work. At Sparketh, we strive to show kids that art and creativity are for everyone. Anyone can be an artist!

We know that traditional art classes are expensive, and can be difficult to find depending on where you live. Making professional online art classes more affordable and accessible is a big part of our mission and our origin story. You can read more about that part of our story in these interview with Sparketh’s co-founders Dwayne Walker (Sparketh’s artistic visionary) or Tim Samuel (Sparketh’s idea architect).