- Written By 10Melanin Team
10 Black Outsider Artists You Should Know
Outsider art, also known as Art Brut, is an art movement where the artist is self-taught. The artists often use unusual materials that are outside the realm of traditional art, such as household items or paint. This form of art also has a connection to Folk Art, sharing similar characteristics and depicting similar themes. Whether this is your taste or not, it's important to note how vital this form of art is to Black artists. Art has a reputation for being something only privileged white people could enjoy, but this form of art has allowed many self-taught Black artists to become much more reconsigned for their talent, due to the light shed on the movement as a whole. For example, you can see outsider art in galleries and museums all across the world now, including having its own fair - Outsider Art Fair, which is available to visit in both New York and Paris. Outsider art can be easy to recognise due to its unique characteristics, so see if you can spot some for yourself next time you're in a gallery.
10. Royal Robertson
Royal Robertson, also known as "Prophet," lived the majority of his time in Louisiana. He left as a child to move up and down the West Coast, but he returned after a few years to look after his elderly mother. He married in 1955, but his wife left him after 19 years and moved their children to Texas. Devastated, Robertson started to paint sketches condemning his wife's betrayal on the inside and outside of his home. Over the next decade, his fascination turned into a mental illness, leading him to believe he was the target of a female conspiracy.
Robertson was a tortured soul who refused to be medicated, but he left behind a massive insight into his incredibly artistic mind with his artwork, that represented his mental health struggles, creativity, and interests.
9. Bill Traylor
Even though Bill Traylor was only active for a few years (1939-1942), he managed to become one of America's most famous Outsider Artists. Over the course of this time he produced over 1200 drawings on cardboard, which led him to eventually be recognised internationally. Traylor went through a series of unfortunate incidents during his lifetime. He was born a slave on a plantation in 1854, and then even when he was a free man, he was forced to leave his job at a shoe factory due to an accident which caused him to have a disability, this then led him to become homeless. Unfortunately, although he had his first exhibition in 1940, Traylor would never experience fame as an artist, as he only began to gain recognition 30 years after his death.
8. Gertrude Morgan
The Jesus Question
Gertrude Morgan was raised as an active member of the Southern Baptist church. After moving to New Orleans in 1939, she began her missionary work as a singing street preacher and soon joined a sanctified fundamentalist church. In the early 1940s, Sister Morgan helped built and operated a small chapel for children who required food and shelter. It was in 1966, that Morgan began making art, after claiming God had instructed her to draw pictures of the world to come. Her art is in fact, sermons that are illustrated on paper and reflect her life and visions, as well as her interpretation of the Book of Revelation which she believed, were composed by God.
7. Mary T. Smith
Souls Grown Deep
Mary Tillman Smith was born in Mississippi in 1904 and she was 1 of 13 children. Her family were hard working, her childhood was typical of the time and educational and economic opportunities were limited. On top of that Smith was born with a severe hearing impairment, which isolated her from siblings, peers and society. Regardless, Mary stayed in school, becoming proficient in reading and writing. It was after retiring in the 70s that Smith set about dividing her yard into a series of spaces decorated with her artwork. She painted portraits of friends and neighbours, allegorical figures and farm animals, mainly using just 1 or 2 colours, on planks of wood or sheets of corrugated iron. She occasionally added signs that reflected her love for her God and messages for drivers passing in their cars.
6. Thornton Dial
Thornton Dial grew up in rural Emelle, in Alabama's western flatlands. Dial spent most of his life working as a machinist, and in his spare time he would make large-scale sculptures from industrial scrap materials; so many, that his wife used to make him bury old works due to lack of space to store them. Dial was discovered by Bill Arnett in the 1980s, who was an Atlanta-based art collector who had a keen interest in work made by untrained Black artists. Dial's work depicts racially charged narratives and natural disasters in American history, as well as the media's representation of these events.
5. Mary Frances Whitfield
Mary Frances Whitfield grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. She lived with her grandmother who was a civil rights activist and was at the forefront of the civil rights movement, marching alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and hundreds of other protesters. Her grandmother tried to shield her grandchildren from the harsh realities and racial violence of the time but despite her grandmother’s efforts, Whitfield remembers seeing the 1955 Jet magazine cover story on Emmett Till’s open casket, which terrified her. Whitfield's art is a reflection of the stories she was told that were passed down through the generations about slavery. However in the early 1990's, after a visit to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute she saw images of lynching and the Ku Klux Klan. These images haunted her, so she began to exorcise them the only way she knew how - by painting them.
4. William L. Hawkins
William Hawkins was a painter who was born in Kentucky, but lived and died in Columbus, Ohio. Hawkins didn't put all of his attention on painting until the age of 84 and also never exhibited his work until he was 87. He is famous for his colourful, large-scale enamel paintings, which were inspired by life and the change in his city during the 20th century. He also painted rural landscapes and animals from memory as well as from his imagination. Unlike most artists, Hawkins would sign his paintings with not only his signature, but his birthdate which acted as a powerful affirmation of his identity.
3. Moses Ernest Tolliver
Moses Tolliver, also known as Moses T, was born and raised in Alabama and 1 of 12 children. He attended school only until the 3rd grade, when he left due to his lack of interest in education. He married his childhood friend and went on to have a big family himself. Working mainly manual jobs, it was during this time that an accident occurred, where his legs were crushed, and he became disabled. Out of boredom he turned to art, regularly working with household paint and using plywood as his canvas, creating whimsical portraits of humans, animals and sometimes plants. Tolliver’s work has been exhibited in the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC, and at the Philadelphia College of Art, Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, and the Corcoran Gallery of Art.
2. Joseph Yoakum
Joseph Elmer Yoakum was born in 1890 in Ash Grove, Missouri, and is of African-American, Cherokee Creek, and European heritage. His work mainly depicts his take on the American landscape, its debatable whether these are based on real life or formed from his imagination. He however, claimed he had seen all of the places he drew, and was heavily inspired by his time travelling. Yoakum began drawing in the last decade of his life, and over the course of this time he produced over 2,000 drawings, often making 1 a day. His work began to draw attention when he displayed these drawings in his home in the South Side of Chicago, and became greatly admired by local artists.
1. Maria Auxiliadora Da Silva
Maria Auxiliadora da Silva was born and raised in São Paulo and was the eldest of 18 children, although her family were not wealthy they were very creative and talented. Her mother made sculptures from wood, her father was a musician, and many of the other children had other creative outlets such as painting and poetry. In order to bring in some money Da Silva had to drop out of school at a young age to work as a domestic servant. Throughout her childhood and adolescence she managed to remain creative, experimenting with various materials, such as charcoal, colour pencil, gouache and oils. Da Silva’s work evolved as she immersed herself into artistic community of Afro-Brazilian artists, and became one of the most recognised Black artists in Brazil.