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Influential Black Artists of Our Time

Feb 28, 2024 02:00PM ● By Okechukwu Nzeribe

School of Beauty, School of Culture by Kerry James Marshall, 2012. Fair Use

Art has always been a tool of expression, whether it is by drawing attention to issues, magnifying unheard voices, or expressing thoughts in provocative ways. As a vehicle for social change, artists have continued to use their works to address injustices, oppose norms, and advocate for changes.

In the contemporary world of art, Black artists have made a considerable impact through their works, thereby leaving their footprints in the sands of time, ensuring they contribute to the progress of humanity, and immortalizing them as some of the most influential Black artists the world has ever seen.

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Jean-Michel Basquiat 

An expressionist painter (Expressionism refers to art where the image of reality is reflected through the inner feelings or ideas of the artist), Basquiat transformed the art world with his style of graffiti-like images and scrawled text kind of painting exploring themes that revolved around his angst to social issues.

A young man whose world began on the streets, Basquiat had a troubled childhood, spending a good number of his years in and out of abandoned buildings. It was in these places he honed his creative expression. Working with the likes of Al Diaz and Shannon Dawson, he was able to start a graffiti campaign.

In 1980, he participated in his first formal public exhibition at the Times Square Show, and from thereon his career took a boost leading him to appear on the cover of the New York Times Magazine in 1985. Sadly, his career was short-lived as he died of an overdose of heroin in 1988.

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Alma Thomas 

School teacher turned artist, Alma Thomas was a figurative artist (an art style that represents objects or events in the real world) who used an abstract style of painting to produce vivid works of art that reflected the beauty of the natural world.

Her unique style, recognized by bold colors and rhythmic patterns, reflected her deep connection to nature and the world around her. Her works offered a seeming likeness to artistic styles like the French twentieth-century artist Henri Matisse, Bauhaus artist and color theorist Johannes Itten, and the abstract painters at the Washington Color School.

In 1972, she held a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art (the first Black woman to do so) where she presented several of her works like The Eclipse (1970, SAAM) and Antares (1972, SAAM).

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Kerry James Marshall

Kerry James Marshall is a painter whose art style explored the aspects of modern life for African Americans. With an assortment of colors, descriptive signage, and decorative backgrounds, his representation of the daily challenges of the Black man comes to life.

His capacity to provide proper context to the underrepresentation of the Black middle class was one distinguishing feature that stood him out. 

Marshall's devotion to portraying the beauty of Black life, especially during the rise of the civil rights movement earned him extensive recognition. Marshall had his paintings exhibited at the Whitney Biennial in 1997, Documentia in 1997 and 2007, Venice Biennale in 2003, the Museum of Contemporary Art, in Chicago, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York. 

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Mickalene Thomas

Mickalene Thomas is an artist who was heavily influenced by pop culture and set out to depict the life of the African American woman and her femininity in a contemporary world. Using a combination of rhinestone and acrylic painting, Thomas was able to bring to life the stimulating nature of black femininity.

Her painting of the First Lady, Michelle Obama brought many press reviews and further recognition of her artwork. Some of her other works have been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts.

Her ability to provide a depiction of the Black woman in a powerful, glamorous form contrary to the popular view was crucial in understanding black femininity and how it greatly manifests in positions of power.

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 Okechukwu Nzeribe works with the Onitsha Chamber of Commerce, in Anambra State, Nigeria, and loves unveiling the richness of African cultures. [email protected]

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