Despite the many contributions of black arts and black artists for centuries, there is still little or no recognition of Black artists and their works. Although the names that often come up predominantly when great artists and artworks are mentioned are that of White artists, this article exposes 10 most Popular Arts And Paintings By Black Artists.
The many contributions of black arts and paintings to the world of art have shaped visual culture throughout history and contemporary times.
All over the world, Black artworks and artists have been disregarded and this has resulted in a popular history of art that has almost exclusively only acknowledged the talents of White artists. It is important therefore, to note that, the works of black artists serve as a vessel of expression that depicts the social, political, and economic realities of these artists’ experiences; but also acts as a form of powerful cultural protest.
In recognition of some of the very powerful expressions of arts by black artists and their paintings, this article will explore the 10 most popular arts and paintings by black artists, which are some of the works of famous Black artists that have made significant contributions to the world of art.
10 Most Popular Arts And Paintings By Black Artists
1. Cancer of the Uterus by Wangechi Mutu
This artwork is one of the many portraits by Kenyan artist, Wangechi Mutu on the same morbid theme, each of which seeks to depict what, for the artist, is a female condition. Cancer of the uterus is one of the most popular arts and paintings by black artists. In this piece of art, women ‘carry the marks’ of their culture; anything that is ‘desired or despised’ is projected onto their bodies. The mutilations and tumours that recur throughout the series serve as a manifestation of gendered suffering and brutality. Patriarchal society, too, is understood as a devastating disease.
In this art piece, we see a face, distinguished by its plush lips and two melancholic eyes, positioned within a mass of black glitter. Horn-like organs sprout from the scalp, while the head of the image is flanked by clumps of white fur. The human features in this work of art seem to be lifted from a glossy fashion magazine, but the basis of the image is a medical diagram of a life-threatening illness. The figure staring forlornly out at the viewer, as the title suggests, is a disturbing personification of cancer.
2. General Toussaint L’Ouverture By Jacob Lawrence
Jacob Lawrence reinterpreted a series of paintings to make these prints of the Haitian Revolutionary, by changing their forms, composition, colors, and scale—a process that he described as “another creative step.”
These prints reinterpret a series of paintings that African American artist Jacob Lawrence made about Toussaint L’Ouverture, a Haitian revolutionary, who was born into slavery. L’Ouverture led an uprising that freed Haiti from European rule. After hearing the story as a young man and being struck that it had been omitted from his formal education, Lawrence began to paint episodes from L’Ouverture’s biography, using bright colors and simple forms to evoke its drama. This painting is one of the most popular arts and paintings by black artists.
3. J’aime la couleur By Chéri Samba
Describing his art, Chéri samba says—”My project is a critical one; I play with humour of course, but the real point is to give a critical portrayal of the way people live”
Chéri Samba’s J’aime la couleur series — undoubtably his most famous and also one of the most popular arts and paintings by black artists, is an unabashed celebration of colour as a lifeline of humanity. Presenting a spiral-headed self-portrait, Samba who is Congolese incorporates his characteristic use of text, bold colours, and glitter in order to catch the attention of passersby, forcing them to stop and focus on his creation.
The present lot of the artwork features a rare black background, most works in this series are executed in shades of bright blue. Another version of this black painting was sold by Sotheby’s in April 2019 and it currently holds the record for the second highest selling work by Chéri Samba at auction.
4. The irony of a negro policeman by Jean-Michel Basquiat
One of the most popular arts and paintings by black artists, is the Irony of Negro Policeman. This piece of art is a mixture of graffiti, expressionism and pure art. As an African American growing up in New York, The artist, Basquiat vehemently believed that African Americans were subjected to the dominance and control of a white male oppressive policing system. At the fulcrum of this painting is the statement that Basquiat envisaged the role of a negro policeman as that of working to enslave his fellow African American citizens.
Irony of a Negro Policeman, asks the question: Why should an African American work for a police state that works against them? The painting is a direct artistic statement of protest towards the white male dominated establishment. At the same time, the artist is also critiquing his own race.
The cartoon like and almost harsh looking negro policeman in this piece of art has been made to represent the foolishness of any African American who wishes to become a law enforcement officer. Basquiat truly believed that they would only be enslaving themselves, while working for a white supremacy police group. The artwork passes a strong message of protest.
5. No Woman No Cry By Chris Ofili
No Woman No Cry is one of the most popular arts and paintings by black artists in recent times. This masterpiece was created by Nigerian artist Chris Ofili in 1998. It was one of the works included in the exhibition which won the Turner Prize that year. Chris Ofili is also the first painter to win the prize since Howard Hodgkin in 1985. The Financial Times has described the work of art as “his masterpiece”.
The painting is in mixed media, including acrylic paint, oil paint, and polyester resin. Fused against a golden background, and depicts the portrait of a black woman with braided hair weeping. The fascinating thing about this work of art is—each tear includes a collaged image of Stephen Lawrence, who was murdered in 1993 and whose mother, Doreen, was leading a campaign in 1998 for an inquiry into the failed murder investigation; the campaign for the inquiry was successful in 1999, with the final report declaring that the police department conducting the investigation was “institutionally racist“.
The painting is sometimes also described as being a portrait of Doreen Lawrence. Barely visible in phosphorescent paint (but clearer in dark conditions) are the words “R.I.P. Stephen Lawrence 1974-1993”.
6. Darkytown Rebellion By Kara Walker
In the Darkytown Rebellion painting, a brilliant pattern of colors washes over a wall full of silhouettes enacting a dramatic rebellion. This style of artistic delivery gives the viewer an unforgettable experience of stepping into a work of art. Kara Walker’s talent is not about creating controversy for its own sake, but building a world that unleashes horrors even as it seduces viewers—thereby making this piece of art one of the most popular arts and paintings by black artists.
The Darkytown Rebellion occupies a 37 foot wide corner of a gallery, with the ensemble made up of over a dozen characters, playing out a nightmarish scene on a single plane: one figure stands upright over his severed limb, despite his bleeding leg stump, with bones protruding from his hips; another silhouette figure, also exhibiting a severed limb, rolls on his back; a woman with a bonnet and voluminous hoop skirt may be attacking a smaller figure on its back, perhaps a crying baby, with a long, plunger-like instrument.
Darkytown Rebellion reflects on the historical representation of African Americans in American visual culture. From the infamous Brookes slave ship print (1789), to Birth of a Nation (1915) to the Aunt Jemima logo (c.1890-today), powerful visuals shape African-American stereotypes and inform how popular culture perceives the African American community. Kara Walker is one of several African-American women who use art to engage with and challenge visualizations of race within popular culture.
7. President Barack Obama By Kehinde Wiley
One of the most popular arts and paintings by black artists in recent times is the portrait of president barack obama by nigerian american artist kehinde wiley. It was announced in October 2017 that Wiley had been chosen by Barack Obama to paint an official portrait of the former president to appear in Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery “America’s Presidents” exhibition.
The painting depicts Obama sitting in a chair seemingly floating among foliage. The foliage is described by the author as “chrysanthemums (the official flower of Chicago), jasmine (symbolic of Hawaii where the president spent most of his childhood) and African blue lilies (alluding to the president’s late Kenyan father).”
Obama is also wearing a 39mm White Gold Rolex Cellini watch which he has chosen to wear on multiple high profile occasions, including the inauguration of President Biden.
Reacting to the unveiling of his portrait Obama said: “How about that? That’s pretty sharp”.
The Washington Post also described the painting as “not what you’d expect and that’s why it’s great”.The painting was sketched in the United States and completed in China by Wiley and his assistants. The unveiling of the portrait led to thousands of visitors lining up at the entrance of the gallery and a threefold increase in visitors compared to the prior President’s Day Weekend.
At the unveiling of the artwork, Obama appreciated Wiley’s ability to show “the beauty and the grace and the dignity” of black people in a grand way. Obama also commended the painting for avoiding making him “look like Napoleon” as many of Wiley’s previous subjects were on horseback. Kim Sajet, the National Gallery Director supported both the selection and the artist’s rendition, commending Wiley on his ability to integrate popular culture into the realm of high art.
Online media outlets however had mixed reactions to the painting. Some see the portraits as political and historical commentary; elegant as an attempt to subvert the racist insults experienced by Obama during his presidency but vibrant enough to entice the viewer.
The piece has also more critically been described as “weird” and that the president sits “awkwardly perched on the edge of his chair”.
8. African American Flag By David Hammons
The African-American Flag is one of Hammon’s best-known works, and also one of the most popular arts and paintings by black artists. It was created in 1990 for the Black USA exhibition at Amsterdam’s Museum Overholland, which ran from April 7 to July 29, 1990.
The flag contains red, black, and green colors. It was used in the exhibition to create awareness of the lack of coverage of African-American artists in Europe.
For so long, the flag has been a recurring element in the artist’s work, and it figures in Hammons’ earlier body print works. Hammons has a unique style of working, which doesn’t include any mediums, academic theory, or any formal. He was once sensationally quoted saying:
I can’t stand art, actually. I’ve never, ever liked art, ever.
Hammons was inspired by two contrasting symbols: the U.S flag and the Pan-African flag adopted by the group Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) by Marcus Garvey and African Communities League in 1920.
9. Dusasa II By El Anatsui
Ghanain El Anatsui, is widely considered today’s foremost contemporary African sculptor. Anatsui’s wall-hanging sculptures are assembled from found materials—typically thousands of discarded aluminum caps and seals from liquor bottles, which he flattens, shapes, perforates, and painstakingly assembles with copper wire. Although he considers himself a sculptor, the artist meticulously orchestrates his materials like a painter working with oil on canvas or the director of a tapestry workshop.
His work is anchored firmly in his traditional culture (Ghanaian kente cloth), Western art (mosaic, tapestry, chain-mail armor, the paintings of Gustav Klimt), and contemporary life (the consumption of alcohol, the detritus of consumerism). According to the artist, the title, Dusasa, can be translated as a “communal patchwork made by a team of townspeople,” analogous to the artist’s team of assistants.
10. Portrait of Mnonja By Mickalene Thomas
The portrait of Mnonja exudes dignity and self-assurance as she reclines against a wood-paneled background redolent of a seventies-era family room.
Over the last ten years, Mickalene has become known for large-scale paintings of American women provocatively posed against boldly patterned backgrounds adorned with rhinestones. Her work explores notions of beauty, sexuality and black female identity.
Mickalene Thomas explores notions of beauty, sexuality, and black female identity in her work. She is inspired by a wide range of sources, from Hudson River School landscapes to Henri Matisse’s nudes and Romare Bearden’s collages. Thomas is one of many contemporary artists experimenting with nontraditional materials. For her, the rhinestones evoke folk art traditions and Haitian voodoo art. They also serve as a metaphor for female beauty products, which can both enhance and mask a woman’s identity.