The Colonial Period  (1600s-early 1800s)

During this time period, many Black artisans were enslaved. They were limited to creating utilitarian objects such as ceramics, clothing and textiles, metalwork, instruments, and furniture. Styles evoked traditional African art which was designed for use in ceremonies, and other social and/or political purposes. Items such as small drums, wrought-iron figures, and ceramic “face” vessels are the most comparable to the traditional arts and crafts of native West and Central African countries. Demand for skilled craftsmen began increasing during this time as skilled enslaved people were commonly “rented” out by their owners to apprentice to white craftsmen such as carpenters, weavers, metalworkers, and potters.

Historically, these utilitarian  items were considered crafts by the American art world and were viewed as a “low” form of artistic expression. It wasn’t until the 1980s that ‘decorative arts’ or the designing and decorating of functional objects was viewed to be aesthetically equal to art forms such as painting and sculpture. Explore an example of the period here.

Federal period (1776-1860s)

The Federal style was based on ancient Greek and Roman motifs such as columns, vines, greek key, and acanthus leaves. These were used in architecture to create a uniquely American style while also associating America with other great civilizations. Black artisans worked mostly in cabinetmaking, architecture, pottery, and textiles mixed African motifs with European styles. 

Learn more about the period here. 

One artist from the period is Harriet Powers (1837-1910), Quilter. Powers worked in quilt making after emancipation. She showed at many exhibitions including the Athens Cotton Fair in Georgia in 1886. Only two of her works survive today: Bible Quilt, 1895 and Pictorial Quilt, 1895-98.

Unknown. Portrait of Harriet Powers. 1901. Image courtesy of Wiki Commons. CC0.

19thc Neoclassicism (1776-1860s)

Neoclassicism was an art movement occurring in tandem with the Federal period. The movement also looked to Greek and Roman motifs. During this time period, Black artists found difficulty in establishing themselves in the visual arts world because of race. Most financial success was gained in producing work based on popular European styles. Many 19th century Black artists moved to Europe to study in art academies as well as escape racial prejudice.

Learn more about this period here.

One artist from the period was Mary Edmonia Lewis (1844-c.1911), Sculptor. Lewis was the first Black sculptor to achieve international success. She moved to Italy in 1865 and settled in Rome where there was a thriving expatriate community of artists and writers. While her style was Neoclassical, the subject matter was based in the struggles against the institution of slavery, female oppression, and Indigenous American cultures. By 1870, Lewis was internationally known earning her commissions, exhibitions, and sales. Learn more about Lewis here.

Her piece, Forever Free (Morning of Liberty) 1867- 1868 is one of Lewis’s first statues. Two freed slaves are her subjects in honor of the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. The imagery portrays Black empowerment which was in opposition to other portrayals of African American at the time such as Thomas Ball’s, Emancipation, 1874.

Henry Rocher, Photographer. Mary Edmonia Lewis. C. 1870. Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

19thc Romanticism and Impressionism (1825-1875)

Romanticism overlapped with Neoclassicism but had a very different look. Landscapes were common subject matter. Artists used the contrast of light and dark to create drama. The surface of the painting was “active” meaning brush strokes could be seen.

Learn more about this period here.

  • Robert Scott Duncanson (1821-1872), Painter. Duncanson was internationally acclaimed for his landscape paintings. He painted his first landscape in 1848, after seeing a painting by Thomas Cole, a Hudson River School painter. The Hudson River School style was known for portraying romantic, atmospheric landscapes. Learn more about Duncanson here.
  • Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937), Painter. Tanner created spiritual and genre scenes in an active brushwork Impressionist style. He was the first Black artist to enroll in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. Tanner moved to Paris in 1891. He briefly returned to the United States for the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. During this time he created African American themed works portraying empathy and honesty with The Banjo Lesson and The Thankful Poor among them. His subject matter shifted to religion when he returned to Paris.  Learn more about Tanner here

Unknown. Portrait of Robert Scott Duncanson. Unknown date. Image courtesy of Wiki Commons

Gutekunst, Frederick. Photographer. Henry Ossawa Tanner. c.1907. Image courtesy of the Archives of American Art via CC0

Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance (1920s-1930s)

The Harlem Renaissance (also known as the New Negro Arts Movement) was the first art movement in Black American history. Beginning in the early 1920s, the Great Migration brought Southern Blacks to Harlem in New York City. Within the population was a small percentage of the African American cultural elite including scholars, philosophers, artists, and social reformers, including Alain Locke and W.E.B. DuBois who helped form the foundation of the movement. DuBois wrote of creating uniquely African American works. Locke believed that the arts were a potent means to reconfigure the identity and image of African Americans. 

Artists explored themes of Africa and the Black experience in America. For the most part, Black artists received recognition through Black-only exhibitions and consumers of Black art were largely white. The bulk of these exhibitions were funded through the William E. Harmon Foundation, a white philanthropic organization. Learn more about the period here and here

  • Richmond Barthe (1901-1989), Sculptor. Barthe graduated from the Art Institute in Chicago in 1929 and then moved to Harlem. His works are mainly male nudes and busts of Black men and women, including his piece Feral Benga (1935). Learn more about the artist here.
  • Archibald J. Motley Jr (1891-1981), Painter. Motley trained at the Art Institute of Chicago and studied with artist George Bellows of the Ashcan School of painters who used vibrant colors, angles, and overlapping shapes in their works. Motley was a member of the Bronzeville movement in Chicago which paralleled the Harlem Renaissance. During the Depression, Motley was hired by the Works Progress Association (WPA) from 1933-1936 to paint murals on African American history for public school buildings. Motley’s favorite subjects were Prohibition activities such as illegal gambling and drinking, as featured in his piece Black Belt (1934)Learn more about the artist here.
  • Aaron Douglas (1899-1979), Painter. Douglas was one of the leading artists of the Harlem Renaissance, identifying with Locke’s and DuBois’s beliefs in the visual arts. Douglas came to Harlem, New York City in 1925. He also studied African and Modern art in Philadelphia and Paris. Douglas developed a unique style that combined African and European design aesthetics. His work, Aspects of Negro Life: An Idyll of the Deep South, (1934) was one of four murals depicting moments in African American history installed at the Schomburg Center in Harlem, New York City. This mural was a WPA project and represents the time just after Reconstruction, during Jim Crow. Learn more about the artist here.
  • James VanDerZee (1886-1983), Photographer. VanDerZee is viewed as the most significant photographer of the Harlem Renaissance. From 1916 to 1945 he recorded Black life in Harlem. VanDerZee worked as an official photographer of the UNIA (Universal Negro Improvement Association) and as a portrait photographer with photographer Charles Gertz before starting his own business, Guarantee Photos Studio. By 1928, VanDerZee was the premier photographer in Harlem. His photograph Future Expectations, (Wedding Day), (1926) can be seen here.

Waring, Laura Wheeler. Painter. W.E.B. DuBois. Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration via CC0

Reyneau, Betsy Graves. Painter. Alain Locke. c.1941-1963. Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration via CC0

Unknown. Richmond Barthe, sculpturing, undated. Image courtesy of The National Archives and Records Administration via CC0

Motley, Archibald. Self Portrait. c.1920. Oil on canvas. Image courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago via CC0

Reyneau, Betsy Graves. Painter. Aaron Douglas. c. 1941-1963. Image courtesy of The National Archives and Records Administration via CC0

Van Der Zee, James. Photographer. Self portrait of James Van Der Zee. 1918. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons via CC0

Social Realism (1935-1943)

The US government was the major patron of Social Realism during the Great Depression. President Roosevelt’s New Deal established the Works Progress Administration (WPA). This was extended to artists through the Federal Art Project (FAP). The art produced was to serve the community or specified government agendas. It funded community art centers as well, several in Black communities. A total of $85 million was spent in the arts, and aided 10,000 artists. Subject matter portrayed a heroic working class, epic political history, and promoted equality. Black artists working under the FAP showed themes of racial discrimination, poverty, and social consciousness. Learn more about the period here and here.  

  • Hale Woodruff, (1900-1980), Painter. In 1926, Woodruff submitted paintings to a Harmon Foundation competition, winning second prize, and enough money to travel to Paris. While there, he studied art and met several Black American expat artists. In 1931, Woodruff established the art program at Atlanta University (Clark-Atlanta). Woodruff painted in both Social Realism and Regionalism (American scene painting) styles.  His focus was on Georgia landscapes, cotton farmers, rural housing developments, and southern lynchings. Woodruff wanted to make art accessible and show the history and achievements of minorities. The Negro in California History: Settlement and Development, Panel 2 (1949) depicts African Americans as the labor force that contributed to modernizing the state while also showing racial oppression. Learn more about the artist here.
  • Augusta Savage (1892-1962), Sculptor. Savage was the most politically influential artist of the 1930s. She was one of the first women to study sculpture at NYC Cooper Union, and also studied African art at the New York Public Library. Savage was commissioned by the library to create a bust of W.E.B. DuBois and other Harlemites. After studying in Paris, she returned and became involved in both starting and working with art centers in New York City. Savage was also instrumental in aiding several Black artists to enroll in the WPA. Savage was offered a commission by organizers of the New York World’s Fair to create The Harp (Lift Every Voice and Sing), (1899), a sculpture based on the famous James Weldon Johnson poem. It was displayed in the Contemporary Arts Pavilion. The sculpture was demolished after the fair as Savage did not have the money to store the sculpture. Learn more about the artist here.
  • Charles White (1918-1979), Painter. Studied at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts and worked for the WPA as a muralist in 1939. White traveled to Mexico with wife and fellow artist, Elizabeth Catlett, to meet Mexican muralists who were creating Social Realist works. He also was part of the WPA-FAP funded South Side Community Art Center (SSCAC) in Chicago which supported fledgling Black artists. His piece, There Were No Crops That Year (1940) featured in the 1940 American Negro Exposition. Learn more about the artist here.
  • Dox Thrash (1893-1965), Printmaker. Born in rural Georgia, Thrash made his way to Chicago during the Great Depression. In 1914, he enrolled at the SAIS (School of the Art Institute of Chicago). He eventually moved to Philadelphia to work as a graphic artist in a print shop. Thrash studied print media illustration and painting, mastering a variety of printmaking techniques.  In 1937, Thrash took a position at the Philadelphia Fine Prints Workshop making prints for schools, libraries, and other public venues. He developed a carborundum mezzotint technique that gave the effect of a charcoal drawing which he felt captured the representation of Black skin. This technique can be seen in his piece Grinding (c. 1940). Learn more about the artist here.

Unknown. Hale Woodruff, undated. Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration via CC0

Unknown. Portrait of Augusta Savage c. 1935-1947. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons via CC0

Unknown. Portrait of Charles White. Undated. Image courtesy of Wiki Commons.

Unknown. Portrait of Dox Thrash. Undated. Image courtesy of Wiki Commons.

Mid-20th Century Transitions (1940s-1960s)

This is a transitional time period where Social Realism was falling out of favor while abstract art received a renewed interest. This created a mix of figurative and abstract art. The WPA-FAP had lost popular support between 1940-1943 as the New Deal and those associated with it were attacked for promoting socialist ideas which were now viewed as Communism. Artists of color were marginalized for being part of the WPA and creating Social Realist works. Many artists relocated to Europe or Mexico because of its socialist art scene. 

  • Elizabeth Catlett (1915-2012), Printmaker, Sculptor. Catlett was the first Black woman to receive an MFA from the University of Iowa where she studied under Regionalist painter Grant Wood. She also studied sculpture at the Chicago Art Institute and lithography at South Side Community Arts Center in Chicago. On a trip to Mexico she was immersed in the public art movement. In the 1950s, Catlett was a target of the US government due to her ties with the WPA and the Mexican Taller de Grafica (TGP) (People’s print workshop). The TGP was designated a Communist organization and members were barred from entering the US for 10 years. Catlett remained in Mexico and taught for 15 years at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma in Mexico City. Catlett’s piece Stepping Out (2000) is on display at the University of Iowa. Learn more about the artist here and here.
  • Romare Bearden (1911-1988), Painter. Bearden attended NYU in the early 1930s and exhibited at Harlem YMCA, Harlem Art Workshop, and the 306 gallery. He was also an active member of the Harlem Artists Guild. Bearden served in the Army, stationed in Harlem during WWII. He used the GI Bill to travel to Italy and France where he was exposed to abstract art. His piece Factory Workers (1942) was featured in a Fortune Magazine article, “The Negro’s War.” Bearden began working in the Cubist style in the mid 1940s-1950s. By the 1960s he developed his signature style of abstract collage and photomontage portraying African American life. Bearden was also a co-founder of the short lived Spiral Group of Black artists. They limited their color pallet to black and white to symbolize racial conflict. The group’s first show was in 1965. Learn more about the artist here.
  • Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000), Painter.  Lawrence bridged the gap between Abstraction and Social Realism styles. Moving to Harlem as a teen, he took classes at the Harlem Community Art Center. Lawrence was part of the WPA-FAP when he created the Migration of the Negro Series. The series brought him national attention, several exhibitions, commissions, and a series of teaching positions beginning in the 1940s. Lawrence received the US National Medal of Arts in 1990. Learn more about the artist here.
  • John Biggers (1934-2000), Painter. Biggers studied at Hampton University in 1941. In 1949, he was hired by Texas Southern University to head their new art department. The Houston and Dallas Museums of Fine Arts exhibited and purchased his works although he could not attend the exhibitions due to segregation laws. Biggers traveled to Africa in 1957 to learn about his cultural roots, and influencing his work, like his piece, Jubilee: Ghana Harvest Festival (1959). His style developed into an influence of African, European, and American artLearn more about the artist here.
  • Gordon Parks (1912-2006), Photographer. Parks was an award winning photographer and filmmaker. His early career found support through the Southside Community Art Center in Chicago. Parks worked for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) before contributing work to Ebony and Vogue magazine. Created during Parks’ position with the FSA, Park’s American Gothic (1942) features Ella Watson, a government employed cleaning woman. The image is meant to be a statement on racial segregation and inequality. This image is also a direct commentary on Grant Wood’s, American Gothic (1930). In 1949, Parks was hired as the first Black staff photographer for Life magazine. Learn more about the artist here.  
  • Roy DeCarava (1919-2009), Painter, Printmaker. DeCarava studied at Cooper Union and the Harlem Community Art Center. He worked for WPA-FAP as a painter and studied printmaking with Charles White and Elizabeth Catlett. His 1949 image Graduation was used in the book Sweet Flypaper of Life. By 1950, DeCarava wanted to portray his own neighborhood of Harlem as “subjects worthy of art.” From 1963-1966, he was the founding director of Kamoinge Workshop for young Black photographers. Learn more about the artist here.  

Katz, Nancy Lee. Photographer. Elizabeth Catlett. July 2003. Image courtesy of Library of Congress

Van Vechten, Carl. Photographer. Portrait of Jacob Lawrence. 1941. Image courtesy of Library of Congress

Unknown. John T. Biggers. undated. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Finn, David. Photographer. Gordon Parks In His Study, c. late 1980s. Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art Library via CC BY-SA 4.0

DeCarava, Sherry Turner. Photographer. Head Shot of Roy DeCarava. undated. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Surrealism (1950s-1960s)

Surrealism (or beyond reality) was founded as a literary movement in France that quickly incorporated visual artists. The movement was influenced by psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud and his analysis of dreams and the subconscious, and how the subconscious affects human behavior. Stylistically it was without abstraction and used dream-like images such as fantasy, spontaneous elements, and an irrational narrative. Surrealism had a significant following in Europe and the US.

  • Hughie Lee-Smith (1915-1999), Painter. Smith’s paintings were based on images that expressed his feelings about the world through the use of long shadows, isolated figures, abandoned architectural settings. Smith graduated from Cleveland Museum School and joined the WPA-FAP as a painter. After graduating with a degree in art education from Wayne State University, he turned to Surrealism to portray social issues such as poverty and racial oppression. His Boy with a Tire (1952) can be seen here.
  • Eldzier Cortor, (1916-2015), Painter, Printmaker. Cortor’s primary subject matter was Black women in surreal settings. He received a fine arts degree from the Chicago Art Institute and worked for the WPA-FAP documenting poverty on the South Side of Chicago. Cortor then received a grant to study the Gullah people in the Low Country of Georgia and the Carolinas, interested in their retention of African culture and practices. This study would influence his work. Examples of his work include The Couple (1948). Learn more about the artist here.  

Unknown. Portrait of Hughit Lee-Smith. Image courtesy of Wiki Commons.

Van Vechten, Carl. Photographer. Portrait of Eldzier Cortor, 1959. Image courtesy of Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons

Art Brut “Raw Art”/Self-Taught/Outsider Art (1930s-1950s)

These terms define working artists without a formal arts education. Originally coined by French artist Jean Dubuffet who viewed art produced without academic instruction to be more authentic. This group of artists are also labeled “primitive” “naive” “folk” “vernacular” and are often segregated from the realm of “high” art.  The style was made popular from the 1930s -1950s due to a 1938 traveling exhibition Masters of Popular Painting, developed by WPA-FAP director and several museum curators which called the artists “Modern Primitives”.

  • Bill Traylor, (1854-1949), Collage. Traylor was an enslaved man and farmworker who worked on the Alabama plantation where he was raised until the owners died. By age 82, Traylor could no longer work due to rheumatism and became homeless. He started creating art that he would hawk on street corners. This caught the eye of Charles Shannon, an artist who bought Traylor’s work and organized a solo exhibit. Traylor’s subject matter was mainly images of farm workers, animals, and blue-color Alabamians. Few works sold to anyone outside of Shannon. Traylor became popular after his death. View his piece, Untitled (Blue Man on Red Object) (c.1939), hereLearn more about the artist here.
  • Horace Pippin (1888-1946), Painter. Pippin has a style similar to Jacob Lawrence. His subject matter varied from portraits and still lifes, to landscapes and biblical themes. Pippin held various jobs before entering WWI as a member of the Harlem Hell Fighters and was awarded the French Croix de Guerre for heroism. He was discharged in 1919 with a partially paralyzed arm and had to re-learn how to paint. Pippin exhibited his work in shop windows in West Chester, PA in the 1930s and as part of the Masters of Popular Painting exhibition. By 1939, Pippen was represented by a Philadelphia gallery specializing in folk art. View his piece, The Hoe Cake (c.1946), hereLearn more about the artist here. 
  • Gee’s Bend Quilters (1930s-present) – Textiles. This is a female cooperative of quilters in the remote African American town of Gee’s Bend (now Boykin), Alabama. Arlonzia Pettway, Annie Mae Young, and Mary Lee Bendolph are among the most notable quilters. Many of the residents can trace their ancestry back to enslaved people. Learn more about the cooperative here and here.

Shannon, Charles. Photographer. Portrait of Bill Traylor. undated. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Unknown. Portrait of Horace Pippin. undated. Image courtesy of Wiki Commons.

Rothstein, Arthur. Photographer. Sewing a quilt. Gees Bend, Alabama. April 1937. Image courtesy of Library of Congress

Abstract Expressionism (1943-1955)

Abstract Expressionism is a type of painting that is non-objective meaning no recognizable form. While many African American artists took part in the movement, just as many kept to creating art as a means of storytelling and political messages. At this time the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing and politics was at the forefront in African Americans lives. Learn more about the period here.

  • Beauford Delaney (1901-1979), Painter. Delaney was the first Black proponent of Abstract Expressionism. He studied in Boston, and studied and exhibited in New York City during the Harlem Renaissance. Through the 1940s, Delaney suffered setbacks due to depression and financial issues. He began exhibiting again in the late 1940s with a more abstract style. In 1953, Delaney followed friend, author James Baldwin, to Paris to escape racial and sexual oppression. View Delaney’s Can Fire in Park (1946). Learn more about the artist here.
  • Alma Woodsey Thomas (1891-1978), Painter. Thomas’s focus was Non Objective and Color Field painting. She lived her entire life in Washington D.C. and was part of the Washington Color School, a group of Color Field and Hard-Edge artists. Thomas chose to use nature as inspiration. “Through color I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness, rather than on man’s inhumanity to man.” Her later years brought more recognition of her work. She was the first African American woman to have a solo exhibition at Whitney Museum of American Art in 1972. Her Wind and Crepe Myrtle Concerto (1973) makes use of gestural abstraction through short brushstrokes. The painting echoes Thomas’s love of nature and musical harmonies. 
  • Sam Gilliam (1933-2022), Painter. Gilliam was a Color Field artist who received a BFA and MFA at the University of Louisville. He was also part of the Washington Color School with Alma Woodsey Thomas. Gilliam’s technique was staining or pouring paint onto a canvas and then folding the canvas so paint would stain through. He then shaped/draped the canvas on an armature or wall creating a sculptural effect. His 1969 Light Depth is a combination of painting, sculpture, and textiles. In the 1970s, he created multi sided canvas frames and surfaces and intensified his color palette. Gilliam also used collage, assemblance, and quilting techniques. Learn more about the artist here. 
  • Barbara Chase-Riboud (1939-present), Sculptor. Chase-Riboud’s work represents figurative expressionism (creation of distorted figures and forms). She traveled to Europe on a Whitney fellowship to study direct wax casting. Chase-Riboud returned to the US to receive her MFA from Yale before moving back to Europe permanently. She is also a poet and published author. Her 1969 work, Malcolm X #3 is comprised of polished bronze sculptures incorporating gold and black patinas with silk, wool, or cotton cords. Contrasting dull and polished, hard and soft, light and dark (yin/yang). Chase-Riboud was also influenced by African headdresses. Learn more about the artist here. 

Van Vechten, Carl. Photographer. Portrait of Beauford Delaney, 1953. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

Whitten, Jack. Photographer. Alma Thomas at Opening in the Whitney Museum. 1972. Image courtesy of the Archives of American Art

Fredrick Nilsen Studio. Portrait of Sam Gilliam, undated. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Roselli, Grace. Photographer. Portrait of Barbara Chase-Riboud. November 7, 2022. Image courtesy of Grace Roselli viaCC BY-SA 4.0

The Black Arts Movement: Pop and Agitprop (1960s-1970s)

The Black Arts Movement: Pop and Agitprop was a Black artist-led movement rooted in African arts and influenced by civil rights gains and the militancy of the Black Power movement. Though mainly a literary group, it extended to the visual arts. Black art museums and Black owned galleries were being founded during this time in part to protest white art institutions’ lack of diversity and representation. Within the movement were Pop Art and Agitprop art styles that were both used to promote political messages. Learn more about the period here. Within the period, the Africobra and the Black Aesthetic developed. COBRA (Coalition of Black Revolutionary Artists), later known as AfriCOBRA (African Comune Of Bad Relevant Artists) formed in Chicago. Artists dealt with Black history narratives and struggles for equality on social, economic, and political levels. Through the use of African symbolism and hieroglyphics, bold patterns, and vivid palettes, the works connected to the viewer which was mostly working-class Blacks. Learn more about Africobra here.

  • Benny Andrews (1930-2006), Painter. Andrews viewed himself as an artist of the people yet viewed art distinct from political activism and of an individual’s aesthetic. He created collage paintings that portrayed places and people with which he was familiar. View his piece, Did the Bear Sit Under a Tree (1969). Learn more about the artist here.
  • Jeff Donaldson (1932-2004), Painter. Donaldson was a founding member of AfriCOBRA. He taught art in Chicago public schools while earning a Masters in art education at Illinois Institute of Technology. His style was self described as “Trans-African” and became a model for AFriCOBRA’s aesthetics. His piece, Wives of Shango (1969) depicts West African god Shango’s warrior wives, signifying armed resistance. Their style reflects the Black Power Movement with Kongo textile patterns. Learn more about the artist here
  • David Hammons (1943-present), Printmaker. Hammons started creating Agitprop art in the late 1960s after witnessing the Watts riots in Los Angeles. His 1970 piece Injustice Case shows a profile of Hammons body bound and gagged with the American flag. This image references the “gagging” of Black Panther Bobby Seale during his trial for conspiracy and inciting a riot. Seale repeatedly protested the trial and charges prompting the judge to have Seale bound and gagged and sentenced to 4 years for contempt. This piece nods to the larger injustices with the American justice system. Learn more about the artist here.

Unknown. Africobra group photo. 1988. Image courtesy of

Gallantain, Betsy. Photographer. Benny Andrews Lecturing at Boston Museum of Fine Arts. 1970. Image courtesy of

Unknown. Jeff Donaldson. c. 1970. Image courtesy Archives of American Art

Unknown. David Hammons. 1980. Image courtesy of Otis College of Art & Design

The Feminist Art Movement (1960s-1970s)

Feminist Art Movement occurred in tandem with the Black Arts Movement. Perceptions of women and their status were changing with the founding of the National Organization of Women, the Civil Rights Act ending sex discrimination, and legalization of abortion. Works by female artists began to reflect new social identities. For Black female artists, both the patriarchal nature of the Black Arts Movement and the predominantly white representation of the Feminist Art Movement marginalized the concerns of Black women. Many chose the Feminist Art Movement and worked within it to address issues of race and gender and formed various professional support groups.

  • Faith Ringgold (1930-present), Mixed media. Ringgold formed WSABAL (Women, Students and Artists for Black Art Liberation) professional support group that was engaged in both Black Arts and Feminist Art Movements. Ringgold’s The Flag is Bleeding (1970) was shown at The People’s Flag Show in 1970 where flag symbolism was used by artists to show opposition to the Vietnam war and the oppression of minorities and women. Ringgold, art activist Jean Toche, and Judson Gallery Curator Jon Hendricks, curated the show. “The Judson Three” were arrested on charges of flag desecration. They became an international cause with outpouring of donations for bail and legal fees. Her 1971 piece Woman Freedom Now (From the Political Poster series), is part of a mixed media series of Pop and Op Art political posters to raise money for the Black Panther Party legal defense fund. Ringgold’s 1970s art is described as Afrofemcentric – a consolidation of feminine causes and Black liberation. After being exposed to Tibetan scroll banners (Tanka) in 1972, Ringgold moved to framing in textiles and then to story quilts which she is famously known for. By 1980, paintings and quilts became one as a painting was then transformed into a quilt. Within this media she addresses women’s themes and has lifted the idea of quilting to high art. Learn more about the artist here.
  • Betye Saar (1926-present), Assemblage/Collage.  Saar is best known for creating Collage and Assemblage works that challenge negative stereotypes about African Americans. Saar stated “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.” Through mixed media/found objects, Saar critiques Mammy stereotypes with The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, (1972). Here Aunt Jemima is viewed as a maid to a self-liberating woman through caricature, pop imagery, and symbols of violence. Learn more about the artist here.
  • Emma Amos (1938-2020), Textiles. “For me, a Black woman artist, to walk into the studio is a political act.” Amos studied fine arts and textile weaving at Antioch College and printmaking techniques in London. She was the only female member of the Spiral Group where she was exposed to the history of African American artists, Agitprop art, and the Black aesthetic. Amos has created several cycles focused on racism, historic figures, Black hair, family history, and Black history. View her piece, Out in Front, 1982, self-woven fabric and painting here.

Frame Still of Faith Ringgold from Symposium: We Wanted a Revolution. April 2017. Brooklyn Museum CC-BY-3.0

Lezley Saar. Portrait of Betye Saar from Site Instalations exhibition poster. 1989. Image courtesy of Wiki Commons CC0

DR.Photographer. Portrait of Emma Amos in her studio. c. 1990s. Image courtesy of DR via CC BY-3.0

Postmodernism (1980s-present)

Postmodernism rejected several characteristics of Modernism including art must be hand made by the artist, art is a marketable commodity, and it must be a unique, sustainable object like a sculpture or painting. Postmodernism encompassed new forms of expression including video, texts, and performance as well as the use of alternative types of materials such as plastics and concrete. 

Conceptual Art was a trend within Postmodernism. Here, the artist’s thought process took precedence over everything else (media type, skill, and technique). Part of the art-making process was written text and sometimes the only element of the work.

Intermedia Art was a method Conceptual artists used such as performance or an installation. A performance is ephemeral and can involve audience participation. Installation art is also temporary. Created for a particular space, can never be viewed the same way twice. The viewer can be immersed in the art by entering it and becoming part of it rather than casually observing.

  • Howardena Pindell (1943-present), Multimedia. Pindell draws on many sources and diverse narratives. She briefly was an associate curator at MoMA but experienced hostility believed by her to be based on race and gender. This fueled her writing, activism, and art. Her Separate but Equal Genocide: AIDS, 1992 A two-part conceptual piece. The red stripe suggests blood, and flags covered with names of AIDS victims. The use of white and black suggests that AIDS does not discriminate even when people do. Learn more about the artist here.
  • Adrian Piper, (1948-present), Multimedia. Piper worked in Conceptualism in the mid 1970s and created installations, performances, and written and oral texts based mostly on myths of the Black male and white fear of miscegenation. Her performances are typically performed outside of traditional museums or galleries and create a direct interaction with viewers. Piper is biracial and often mistaken for white. Therefore, she is often unwillingly involved in racist conversations. When these conversations occurred she would hand calling cards to the offending parties, My Calling Card #1 (For Dinners and Cocktail Parties), performance art accessory, 1986. Learn more about the artist here
  • Fred Wilson, (1954-present), Multimedia. Wilson critiques traditional museum and gallery installations by manipulating standard museum objects and their spaces showing that context changes create changes in the viewer’s perception. Wilson’s Guarded View (1991) is part of a larger work entitled “Mining the Museum” at the Maryland Historical Society. Learn more about the artist here and here.
  • Carrie Mae Weems, (1953-present), Photographer. Weems is a photographer, multimedia, and installation artist. She shows Black subjects with the intention that to better understand the present, you have to investigate the past. Weems also focuses on Black cultural identity. From Here I Saw what Happened and I Cried (1995) is a series in which Weems redefined and humanized archeological daguerreotypes taken of African slaves in 1850. Learn more about the artist here.

Zirkel, Kenneth. Photographer. C. Howardena Pindell at Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University. Feb. 2019. Image courtesy of Kenneth C. Zirkel via CC BY-4.0

Unknown. Portrait of Adrian Piper. 2005. Image courtesy of Adrian Piper via CC BY-SA-3.0

Ben-Ari, Guy. Photographer. Artist Fred Wilson. 2013. Image courtesy of Pace Gallery

Thomas, Michelene. Photographer. Carrie Mae Weems, New York City. Aug. 2018. Image courtesy of the New York Times.

Neo-Expressionism (late 1970s-early 1990s)

Neo-Expressionism merges Abstract Expressionism with  figural representation and a rejection of all Postmodernism innovations such as Installation and Conceptualism. There are a range of subjects and diverse styles. 

  • Robert Colescott, (1925-2009), Painter. Colescott was a forerunner of the Neo-Expressionist movement bridging old and new Pop Art variations. He appropriated well known European artworks using African American subjects with a style that uses figural distortions and multiple figures in a cramped space. Colescott appropriates the Emmanuel Leutze painting George Washington Crossing the Delaware, substituting George Washington Carver for George Washington, and the soldiers are replaced by Black stereotypes (i.e. mammy, minstrels) in his piece George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware, 1975. Learn more about the artist here.
  • Kara Walker (1969-present), Silhouettist. Walker uses the vintage Victorian style of silhouette art, placed on a white background. The pieces are sometimes accompanied by a video or mood lighting. The silhouettes challenge cultural memory and decorum depicting death, enslavement, interracial violence, and depravity acted out by antebellum characters. In this way, she turns history into a farce. Walker’s work has been controversial as supporters view the art as a critique of racism through irony, caricature, and disturbing narrative. Critics view it as degrading and reinforcing negative stereotypes. Walker’s Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as it Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart, 1994  is a panoramic piece inspired by Gone with the Wind novel and film. Learn more about the artist here.
  • Kerry James Marshall (1955-present), Painter Marshall creates multi layered paintings and collages with darkly pigmented flat figures to express narratives on Black society and history. Better Homes, Better Gardens (1994) is part of the “Garden Project” series. Well dressed children in different outdoor gardens are in ironic contrast to the actual poverty conditions of public housing projects, which bear such stately names as “Wentworth” and “Stateway Gardens.” Learn more about the artist here.
  • Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988), Painter Basquiat began his career as a graffiti artist with the tag of SAMO (same old). He quickly rose to fame after taking part in a group exhibition in 1980. His early 1980s works have skeletal forms, masked faces, urban symbols, text phrases about his life and societal observations, as well as his Puerto Rican and Haitian cultural heritage. The Irony of a Negro Policeman (1981) is vividly painted with a skeletal form. The use of the word “pawn” suggests Black policemen were ironic in a racist judicial system. He worked collaboratively with pop artist Andy Warhol and Italian artist Francesco Clement. Learn more about the artist here.

Hirely, Ken. Photographer. Robert Colescott. 1997. Image courtesy of Los Angeles Times.

Kennedy, Martin. Kara Walker, Interview Camden Arts Centre (film still). October 10, 2013. Image courtesy of Vimeo via CC BY-SA-3.0

Unknown. Kerry James Marshall a la Fundacio Tapies. 2014. Image courtesy of US Consulate General Barcelona via cc BY-ND 2.0

Galerie Bruno Bischoberger, Photographer. Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Bruno Bischofberger, and Fransesco Clemente. New York. 1984. Image courtesy of the author CC-BY-4.0

Post-Black Art (1990s-present)

Artists are no longer compelled to create works that are protest or ethnic. The American population was changing as according to the 2000 census, with a larger segment of the American population marked “other” for those of multiple ethnicities, or rejection of racial labeling altogether. This “New Millennium” art still shows racial pride and identity and allows for multiple influences (i.e. race, gender, and ethnicity).

Afrofuturism style of art, reimagines the past, present, and future of Africans and African Americans through various lenses including science fiction and futuristic fantasy.

  • Kehinde Wiley, (1977-present), Painter. Wiley looks to European male portraits of the 16th, 17th, and 18th century (kings, military, gentry, royalty) and portrays them as successful privileged Black men, some of which are known celebrities. He uses gilt frames and patterned backdrops inspired by key Western European art eras such as the Italian Renaissance and French Baroque. Wiley challenges the concept of Black masculinity as Black men are often equated with fear and violence in America. His piece, Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps (2005) is based on Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleon Crossing the Saint Bernard Pass. The figure is a young Black man from south-central Los Angeles. He is seated in a power position in the grand manner of European portraiture. Learn more about the artist here.
  • Renee Cox, (1958-present), Photographer. Cox uses her body in her work. She started out as a fashion photographer. As Cox became aware of the scarcity of Black bodies in the fashion industry, she began to create works that consider Black female beauty and sexuality. In Taxi, the Raje series (1998), Cox shows herself as the Afrofuturist superhero Raje. The costume is in the colors of the Jamaican/Black nationalist flags. Superhero Raje stops a taxicab critiquing New York City cab drivers that pass Black passengers. The work subverts stereotypes, rights injustices, and rewrites history. Learn more about the artist here.

Unknown. Kehinde Wiley (detail), January 2015. Image courtesy of the US State Department via CC0

Shankbone, David. Photographer. Renee Cox at Tribeca Film Festival. April 2008. Image courtesy of David Shankbon via CC BY-SA3.0

 Power and Impact will be shown at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art

410 3rd St SE | Cedar Rapids, IA 52401