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  • Written By 10Melanin Team

10 African-American Artists You Should Know

For a lot of now famous African-American artists, they unfortunately didn't gain recognition until later years and had to support theirselves through other means, such as teaching or writing. Even now, many of us are rarely taught in schools about the impact that Black art has had on the world. We have such inspiring stories to tell through art, that involves struggle, culture and celebration but yet are constantly forgotten about. So, here is a list of Black American artists we wish we were taught about in school and think you should know.

10. Samella Lewis

Samella Lewis sitting next to artwork of woman holding yellow flowers

Samella Lewis Gallery

Samella Lewis was born in New Orleans and is a printmaker and painter, unlike most of the artists on this list she is actually better known for being an art collector and historian than she is her own work. Lewis is an incredibly accomplished woman having completed four degrees, five films, seven books and a vast array of her own artwork. She has her own online gallery but also sells her artwork on Etsy, and although pricey this is a pretty progressive way to open up art collecting to new buyers.

9. Barkley L. Hendricks

Artist Barkley L. Hendricks taking a mirror selfie with 70s style black figure painting with pink background

Jack Shainman Gallery / Estate of Barkley L. Hendricks

Barkley L. Hendricks was a contemporary artist best known for his work surrounding conceptualism and Black portraiture. He was born in Philadelphia but his parents were from Virginia and moved North during the Great Migration. It was during the 60's while travelling Europe that he developed a love for portraiture and found inspiration from artists such as Van Dyck and Velázquez. From the 70's right up until his retirement in 2010 he was mainly a professor of studio art at Connecticut College teaching drawing, illustration, photography and painting.

8. Beauford Delaney

Artist Beauford Delaney standing in front of artwork of black man figure sitting down in bright striped colours

Michael Rosenfeld Gallery / Beauford Delaney

Born in Knoxville Tennessee in 1901, you can imagine already what type of hardships Beauford Delaney must of endured during his early years. His mother and father were religious people and prominent members of the Knoxville Black community, his mother Deilia was born into slavery meaning she couldn't read or write but was still able to transfer a sense of self esteem and dignity into her children. Dealney was one of ten children and one of four who survived to childhood. It was when he was in his adult life that he moved to New York during the Harlem Renaissance and also during the Great Depression so he struggled financially. His early work featured many Black male portraits and paintings until he moved to Paris and was inspired by expressionism. During the 60's he began to drink and struggle mentally going in and out of manic states until he died in 1988.

7. Romare Bearden

Artist Romare Bearden with collage artwork of black woman

Marvin E. Newman

Romare Bearden was a very different type of artist from many others on this list because was not only an artist but an author and songwriter too, his work was not traditional either as it includes mixed media such as collages, cartoons and oils. Black comes in all shades and although Bearden could "pass" as white and potentially lead a white life but he instead dedicated his life's work to his Black heritage making it a key theme throughout his work. Starting his career mainly depicting Southern USA, his work evolved after serving in World War II when Bearden stated that he "wanted to instil some humility back into the world" after his life changing experience.

6. Elizabeth Catlett

Artist Elizabeth Catlett Stands in front of sculpture next to bronze figurehead of a black woman

Whitney / Frank Franklin II

Sculptor and printmaker Elizabeth Catlett was born and raised in Washington DC but spent many years of her live in Mexico, specifically teaching and was part of the Taller de Gráfica Popular. Her mother and father were children of freed slaves and she was told stories of their hardship from her grandmother when she was young. Catlett's work focused mainly on African-American woman's experiences, mixing abstract and figurative methods with African and Mexican traditions. She like many others only found recognition later in life but has achieved many awards some including earning a honorary doctorate from Pace University and Carnegie Mellon also she received the International Sculpture Center's Lifetime Achievement Award in contemporary sculpture.

5. Jacob Lawrence

Artist Jacob Lawrence Sits in great suit in his home next to painting of a black man fixing a watch

Robert W. Kelley / Smithsonian

Jacob Lawrence was a painter best known for his modern take on cubism, he was influenced by Harlem and its colours and shapes which are reflected in his work. The main subject of his art is the everyday life and history of African- Americans, he gained recognition at the young age of 23 with Migrant Series, often turning a heartbreaking subject in to one of beauty. His paintings are placed in permanent exhibitions all around America, including The Whitney, The Met, MOMA and even The White House where his 1947 painting "Builders" hangs.

4. James Van Der Zee

Artist James Van Der Zee smokes a cigar next to a black and white portrait of a young black boy in a suit

Howard Greenberg Gallery / Nancy R. Schiff

James Van Der Zee was a photographer best known for his portraits of Black New Yorkers. What makes James' photographs so special is that he portrayed mainly Black wealth and opulence, documenting the growing Black middle class at the time which is often never represented not only back then but now too. He was very technically advanced with the way he took photos, he developed different retouching techniques by using double exposures to created an aurora and idealistic portrayal of his subjects, which as a result his photographs often resembled paintings.

3. William H. Johnson

Black and White image of William H. Johnson sitting down next to his painting of 3 black women


William H. Johnson was an American Painter, born in Florence South Carolina, best known for the depiction of Black people and Black lives in his artwork, he became a key figure of the American Harlem Renaissance. He was lucky enough to be able to move around and travel during his lifetime which had a profound effect on the outcome and influence of his work. He studied design in New York but it was while living in France he became influenced by the modernist style and after meeting his wife who was danish and having lived together in Scandinavia for a while, it was there he was influenced by folk art.

2. Alma Thomas

Black photograph of Artist Alma Thomas painting in her studio and repetitive style expressionist painting in orange red and yellow

Culture Type / Michael Fischer

Alma Thomas was an expressionist painter, born in Columbus Georgia, she is known for her use of colour and abstract forms in her paintings. Alma studied at HBCU Howard University all the way back in 1921, she entered to study home economics but switched to fine art in time earning her Bachelors in 1924 and becoming the first graduate of the fine arts programme. However it was not until the 60's that she would start to gain recognition for her work after retiring from teaching which she did for over 30 years. While somewhat considered under rated and under appreciated, her timeless work will hopefully become better recognised as art becomes more accessible.

1. Jean-Michel Basquiat

Black and white photography of Jean-Michel Basquiat sitting down next to his artwork

Dmitri Kasterine / Vogue

Possibly the most famous Black artist of all time, Basquiat is known mainly for his neo-expressionist work of the 80's but began building recognition with his street art which he did under the SAMO along with his friend Al Diaz. His father was Haitian and his mother Puerto Rician and it was his mother Matilde Basquiat who installed a love of art into him by taking him to visit museums in Manhattan at a young age, eventually enrolling him as a junior member of the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Going from just being a kid from Brooklyn to living with Madonna and hanging out with Andy Warhol, his quick rise to fame came with a price and had a profound effect on Basquiat's health and wellbeing. He unfortunately died in 1988 at the very young age of 27 due to long battle with drug abuse, making him a member of the 27 Club.

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