What’s Poppin?: Highlighting Activism, Hope and Courage: Significant Black Artists of our Time

Alex James, Staff Writer

During Black History Month, the U.S. recognizes the Black community’s hardships and achievements. It is important, especially during this time, to recognize and celebrate Black talent in art, and the significant role they play in influencing various art forms. Throughout history, Black artists have used their creativity to highlight their struggles and injustices, as well as to celebrate their culture and identity. 

Below are a few of the most influential black artists of our time: 

Kara Walker

Kara Walker, an American contemporary painter, silhouettist, printmaker, installation artist and filmmaker, explores race, gender, sexuality, violence and identity in her work. She is best known for her room-size tableaux of black cut-paper silhouettes. Walker’s work earns recognition for its provocative and challenging nature, often presenting complex narratives that explore the historical and contemporary experiences of Black individuals in America. In her work, Walker subverts this traditional form, using it to explore themes of slavery, power and sexuality. Her pieces often depict scenes of violence, challenging viewers to confront the uncomfortable history of racial cruelty. 

Jean-Michel Basquiat

Jean-Michel Basquiat is an American artist who began his works in the 1970s, influenced by graffiti art in the Neo-expressionist movement. His artwork is characterized by its bold and expressive style and use of symbolic language and imagery. His works are known for their themes of race, identity and culture. In the 1980s, Basquiat’s work gained a great deal of recognition, and he was featured in numerous exhibitions and art shows, becoming one of the most prominent artists of his generation. He included a crown motif in all of his paintings, as a way to give himself recognition. Although the exact meaning behind the crown symbol is not known, it could be assumed that it was meant to show recognition to Basquiat as a king, his association with kings, or his ambition to become a remarkable artist

Kehinde Wiley

Kehinde Wiley is an American artist best known for his powerful portraits of African Americans; he was chosen to paint former president Barack Obama’s official presidential portrait in 2018. His portrait paintings challenge stereotypes and perceptions of Black people in Western art and often place subjects in ornate, detailed backgrounds. In doing so, he undermines the notion that Black people are often excluded from representations of power and nobility. Throughout his career, Wiley has received numerous awards and accolades for his work, including a MacArthur Fellowship in 2018. His work has been exhibited in museums and galleries around the world and is recognized as a leading figure in contemporary art for his innovative and thought-provoking approach to portraiture and representation.

Hank Willis Thomas

Hank Willis Thomas is a contemporary American artist and photographer who is best known for his pieces that explore themes of race, identity and representation in American culture. Thomas’ work often involves the appropriation and recontextualization of images from advertising and pop culture. Additionally, he incorporates text into his works, creating new meanings that challenge the viewer’s assumptions and beliefs, specifically regarding Black culture. One of Thomas’ most well-known works is his series “Unbranded: Reflections in Black by Corporate America,” which features images of African American men and women from advertising and marketing campaigns. By removing the original branding and text from the images, Thomas highlights the ways in which Black people are objectified in American culture. In 2017, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship for his contributions to the field of photography.

Wangechi Mutu

Wangechi Mutu, a contemporary Kenyan artist based in New York City, is famous for her collages, sculptures and installations that examine themes of gender, race, identity and power. Mutu’s work often addresses issues of colonialism, gender and identity and frequently features images of Black women that serve to confront traditional Western representations of the female body. By depicting the female human body in a distorted way, she merges the body with animal and machine parts to create surreal and unsettling images that consider the intersectionality of technology, nature and the body. There are numerous exhibitions of her work in museums and galleries around the world, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Tate Modern in London and the Whitney Museum of American Art. She has received numerous awards and accolades for her work, including a U.S. Artists Fellowship, a Deutsche Bank Artist of the Year Award and an Anderson Ranch Arts Center National Artist Award.

Faith Ringgold

Faith Ringgold is an award-winning American painter, writer, sculptor and performance artist. She gained popularity for her narrative quilts. Ringgold’s story quilts often feature scenes from African American history and culture, and frequently address themes of gender, race and politics. She uses her quilts as a form of storytelling by weaving together images and texts to create intricate and highly detailed narratives. Ringgold has played a prominent role in the feminist and civil rights movements since the 1960s, and her work commonly addresses issues of social justice and equality. She has received numerous awards and accolades for her work, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and the Coretta Scott King Award for her children’s book “Tar Beach.” A number of museums and galleries have exhibited her work, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Studio Museum in Harlem.

Virgil Abloh

Virgil Abloh is a contemporary American fashion designer, artist and entrepreneur, best known for his role as the artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear line and as the founder of the fashion label, Off-White. Abloh is credited for guiding a new era of fashion that emphasizes inclusiveness and diversity, as his work regularly addresses issues of race, identity and pop culture. In addition to his work in fashion, Abloh, a prolific artist, exhibited his works in galleries and museums around the world and received numerous awards and accolades for his work, including the British Fashion Council’s Urban Luxe Award and the title of one of the 2018 Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world.