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Issue 17 Out Now

Revolutionary Black Artists from the Past and Present

Retrieved from Bisa Bulter’s Instagram

Art tells stories and for centuries upon centuries, it has been ingrained in American culture. A culture that has been shaped by the contributions of many individuals spanning a myriad of identities. Unfortunately, those contributions can often go unnoticed and artists of color aren’t recognized for their talents or influence. The truth is American art is deeply diverse once you take a look in the dark corners and supply them with light. Let’s take this time to bring light to the revolutionary black artists from the past and present that have pushed boundaries and given voices to the voiceless.

Jacob Lawrence

Born in New Jersey in 1917, Lawrence found his love for the arts in Harlem when his mother enrolled him in after-school classes not long after he and his siblings moved to the Big Apple. Young Lawrence practiced his craft with crayons, drawing patterns after patterns copying the appearance of his mother’s carpets. About 20 years later at the age of 23, Lawrence moved from carpet patterns to completing his 60-panel set of narrative paintings, Migration of the Negro, or now titled The Migration Series. The series tells the story of when hundreds of thousands of African Americans moved from the South to the urbanized areas across the country after World War 1.

Lawrence being the first African American artist to have his work in the Museum of Modern Arts’ permanent collection was instrumental in portraying African American historical moments and contemporary life in his artwork bring the black experience to life with vivid colors.

Titus Kaphar

Born and raised in Kalamazoo, Michigan in 1979, Kaphar taught himself to paint by visiting

museums. Through his studies at San Jose State University and Yale University, Kaphar refined his multidimensional, often clipped, and sculptural paintings that pushed the norm in centering the black body or the black experience. Kaphar is a changemaker that challenges his audience to see images, specifically historical ones, in new ways — by including the face of an African American subject. His latest exhibition, The Evidence of Things Unseen, captures beautifully what Kaphar is exploring in his art. Grappling with the representation of the black body in the Renaissance, Kaphar brings attention to the absence of those who look like him from the canvases of the European greats.

Aside from Kaphar’s artistic genius, his commitment to social engagement led him to establish NXTHVN with fellow artists Jason Price and Jonathan Brand. Their focus is to offer art mentorship and career advising differently than the traditional way to bring forth significant opportunities for aspiring artists and curators.

Bisa Butler

Born in Orange, New Jersey, Butler studied the work of prominent Black artists through her studies as a fine art major at Howard University. While completing her undergraduate degree her medium of choice was painting but she never really connected with the medium. Come to find out in a classroom dedicated to learning about the ins and outs of fiber art, Butler’s artistic medium was born in her love for quilting.

From creating a quilt for her grandmother on her deathbed to producing contemporary artworks that are life-sized historical portraits of Black people who’ve been overlooked in history, Butler utilizes her choice of material — stylistic, colorful, and regal like a painter with a brush.

Jean Michele Basquiat

Born in Brooklyn in 1960, teenage Basquiat was an important figure in helping popularize street art. He achieved fame as part of SAMO, a graffiti tag used on the streets of New York City, and in the 80s’ his art expanded to neo-expressionist paintings that brought graffiti to galleries and museums internationally. Basquiat became the youngest artist at the age of 21 to take part in Documenta, an exhibition of contemporary art, in Kassel as well as the youngest at the age of 22 to have an exhibit at the Whitney Biennial in New York.

Basquait’s art focused on a wide range of topics, highlighting the contrast of many themes like wealth and poverty or integration versus segregation. He used his art as social commentary to attack power structures and combat racism.


“8 Groundbreaking African American Artists To Celebrate This Black History Month”. My Modern Met, 2021, Accessed 17 Mar 2021.

“Rebel US Artist Puts Black Lives In The Renaissance Frame”. The Guardian, 2020, 17 Mar 2021.

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