Starting today and for the next three Thursdays, Playboy will focus on the overlooked contributions of black Americans in the fine arts in honor of Black History month.
If you ask most people to name a black artist, they’ll likely say Jean-Michel Basquiat. He’s the king and the go-to. If they’re a little more up-to-date they may mention Kara Walker who dominated the public art convo last year with her sphinx sugar sculpture, A Subtley. Or perhaps, they might utter the name Romare Bearden—a painter who was widely known decades before Basquiat and whose fame the younger artist has since eclipsed. But there is endless subject matter worthy of meaningful aesthetic consideration by untold black artists, and plenty of room on the world stage for more than one super-star.
Compared to the worlds of sports and music—arenas where black people’s talents are regularly celebrated—the art world is more like corporate America, a private space of privilege that makes even Hollywood and Washington, DC look diverse and progressive by comparison. This is a problem: from slavery to the civil rights era to Yeezus, black artists have worked to make racism visible, ask complicated questions about marginalized identity, and advocate for change.
While today’s mainstream art world is largely devoid of a noticeable black presence, we’ll be taking an expansive look at the vibrant, exciting world of black artists, all month-long. So, to get you up to speed, dear readers, here are eight living black artists whose work you need to know about:
1. Kerry James Marshall (b. 1955)
“When I go to the movies, I’m expected to identify with all of the characters, and most of them are white. But when you put a black character in there, somehow the white audience isn’t expected to identify with them. That’s a problem.”
—from a BBC interview
The Alabama-born, Watts-raised, MacArthur Foundation Genius, Kerry James Marshall paints life in collision. His work is rigid with the authority of history—and often fraught with a dark, profound sense of loss—but that doesn’t stop him from conjuring irreverent playful imagery like his painting “Bang.” In the work, you’ll notice his figures are painted with an irreducible ebony blackness, which is only exaggerated by the other juicy colors that draw in the eye.
As he put it in a BBC interview last year:
“The blackness of my figures is supposed to be unequivocal, absolute and unmediated. They are a response to the tendency in the culture to privilege lightness. The lighter the skin, the more acceptable you are. The darker the skin, the more marginalized you become. I want to demonstrate that you can produce beauty in the context of a figure that has that kind of velvety blackness. It can be done.”
Yes, it really can.
2. Lynette Yiadom Boakye (b. 1977)
“I’ve been working on a series of portraits. None of them is of existing people, but they are familiar. My roll call is growing and it contains some of my favorite characters. They include Grammy winners (gracious in acceptance of awards), revolutionaries, fanatics, anthropologists and missionaries (good for showing us how to live), savages (good for showing us how far we have come and how not to live), radicals and the generally angry, amongst others.”
—from an artist statement
The London-born-and-raised artist, poet and writer, Lynette Yiadom Boakye often chooses to keep her subjects shoeless. While footwear anchors an image within a specific time, Boakye’s preference is for timelessness. This not only makes for bare feet; it grants her work a child’s sense of freedom. Boakye sets her figures loose to live in a soft, hazy sort of memory. The men, women, girls and boys in her paintings are characters from her imagination, born of her internal, personal experience of blackness. Yet, you immediately recognize a sense of life at first glimpse. Boakye’s soft brushwork renders her subjects immediately familiar. They float free of an era, but connect with a subtle immediacy.
3. Titus Kaphar (b. 1976)
“It takes a village to build a ruin. And no ruin is an island. The ruin is a social collective construction—as is the psyche. If you have a ruin inside you, remember you didn’t build that.”
Titus Kaphar is an artist fueled by the long ache and echo of history. Born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, he now spends his time in New York painting works that reveal how our yesterdays support today. “You can’t hide the truth because the truth is all there is,” his works seem to say.
Some of Kaphar’s most powerful pieces are portraits of black men obscured and silenced by tar. His use of tar began with a project based on mugshots of imprisoned black men with the same name of his father. His Jerome Project commented on intersections of race, society, and the criminal justice system. How do we ever find forgiveness for the wrongs we do, and have done to us? Kaphar’s paintings asks these questions, while reminding us how the past isn’t prologue; it’s part of the cycles that continue to shape the present day. Always.
4. Jennifer Packer (b. 1984)
"I like the way that perhaps Harlem, at a glance, doesn’t provide you with an overt sense of the violence that has occurred here. In The Harlem Ghetto, Baldwin writes, ‘Harlem wears to the casual observer a casual face.’ I think about images that resist, that attempt to retain their secrets or maintain their composure, that put you to work. I feel that way about someone like Billie Holiday: her voice and love versus the content of her life and her music. I hope to make contradictory paintings, works that suggest how dynamic and complex our lives and relationships really are.”
—from a 2013 interview with Elixher.com
Her work boasts a sadness, both in gesture and in style. Packer, a queer black woman, raised in Philadelphia and educated at Yale, now, calls New York her home. Her figures are often seated, reclined, or supine. Their position indicates a world-weariness and also a vulnerability found in their solitude.The textures of Packer’s paintings convey a sense of the layers of history at play in any individual—the daubs of color build a history of the person. Whether her figure gazes out at the viewer and meets their stare, or if the figure’s eyes are withdrawn and lost in a silent contemplation, her subjects always have a undeniable dignity, an undefeated quality. Packer captures a subtle defiance of black culture that lives in the tiny details. In the painting above, we see a man living life on his own terms, from the self-contained look on his face down to socks with a rainforest richness of color.
5. Kehinde Wiley (b. 1977)
“Portraiture is something that’s really suffering in the media environment that we have right now. What I try to do in image-making is try to create something that can compete on the same level—something that’s as sexy and as current and as complex as the world we all continue to evolve in.”
—from an interview with ArtNet
The most well-known of the eight, Kehinde Wiley, paints large scale work that is substantial in size and meaning, exquisitely lush, and subtly sexual. Working in a style that evinces the European masters, he marries their techniques to this modern moment of black masculinity. His thinly painted canvassses give blackness a grandeur of beauty and poise, an oft-denied delicacy and visual importance. Painted with the reverence typically reserved for the aristocracy, Wiley’s treatment of black bodies elevates black women and men by treating them with the same respect the Old Masters gave to their patrons, whose images now hang majestically in the museums of the world. Wiley’s artwork is a radical act and a vital, relevant seizure of power, both for him, his subjects, and for blackness.
6. Paul Anthony Smith (b. 1988)
“At nine, I moved to Miami and remain fascinated whenever I find similarities crossing the culture. Jamaica’s Island vibes are hard to explain aside from the relaxation that the world knows. It’s the food, music and lifestyle. I use many colors natural of the region, but I’m drawn to capturing the essence of who my people are whether it be through a person’s posture or gaze.”
—from an interview with the artist
Born in Jamaica, raised in Miami, and trained at the Kansas City Art Institute, Paul Anthony Smith has decided to stay in the Sunflower State, and now calls Kansas City his home base. Dating back to a trip Smith made to his native Jamaica, wherein he saw airport workers in their safety uniforms and was inspired to treat their uniforms as a form of social invisibility, Smith’s work confront the anonymity and stolen dignity of his people. His preference for balaclava renders their blackness with a sort of criminal danger while referencing ceremonial African masks. Whether they’re in Miami or Jamaica, Paul Anthony Smith’s subjects are people denied their individual dignities. And when they stare back at you, they remain undaunted and undefeated. In the painting above, this little boy stares with such intensity, his eyes indict the viewer as a participant in the forces that covered him form view.
7. Alexandria Smith (b. 1981)
“I think childhood is different for a girl than a boy mainly because society treats girls and boys differently. My work addresses the experiences of adults as well as children which is inherent in the boundaries that I blur by depicting hybrid characters. The characters in my work are sometimes multi-gendered and multi-racial so the work isn’t only addressing specific differences or similarities but also the overlapping experiences we all share.”
The Brooklyn-based Alexandria Smith (no relation to Paul Anthony) creates work that are seriously childish. Pigtails, twisted reaching limbs, ribbons, flowers, little girl-dresses: together these references bring a magical realism born of girlish blackness to her canvases. Breaking free of the physical limitations of her paintings, using playful aspects more typical of an art installation, such as the ribbon gathered on the floor in the work above, there is an undeniable sense of irreverent humor in her work. She conveys pain through a laugh, offers a smile mixed with tears, and a song sung from an aching heart. Smith defines her realism with surges of memory, and captures the elusive bits on the periphery of the self.
8. Norm Maxwell (b. 1969)
“My characters are not necessarily from another planet. They’re more like from another dimension. They’re transforming into letters and hieroglyphs like letters in an alphabet of a new language.”
Of the all artists thus far mentioned, Los Angeles-based Norm Maxwell creates work that’s the closest to street art and graffiti. His work calls to mind the vividness of black culture that’s typically expressed in song and the church. Like many of the artists mentioned, his work is informed by the past; the colors and and textures he uses stretch into present as he attempts to convey meaning for an unknown future. Although not explicity afro-futurism, his work has a great sense of play and abstraction that show the possibilities of a man considering future black life.