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10 Black Visual Artists Who Changed the Way We See

These must-know Black artists will influence generations to come!

Sarah Burns

THUMB ARTISTS@2x

Artists are instrumental in shaping our worldview, and opening our minds to new ideas. These 10 Black artists are trailblazers in their fields; revolutionary creators with global influence, destined to be discovered and celebrated by generation after generation of eager new art lovers.

Jean-Michel Basquiat

With a raw style that married high art with graffiti, Jean-Michel Basquiat blazed onto the 1970s and ‘80s art scene in New York. Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Basquiat was the son of Puerto Rican and Haitian immigrants and fluent in English, French, and Spanish.

Despite having no formal training, Basquiat painted at a furious pace. With the city streets as his canvas, his unmistakable expressionistic style graced subways, walls, and underpasses — mostly near art galleries and museums in a bold attempt to make a name for himself.

Basquiat’s powerful works spoke for themselves, and by the late 1970s, his paintings made the leap from subway walls to world-renowned art galleries. He was offered his first formal public exhibition in “The Times Square Show” in 1980, which launched Basquiat to celebrity status, introducing him to artists like Andy Warhol and Madonna.

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s creative light burned like a flash — blindingly brilliant and gone too soon. He was lost to a drug overdose at only 27 years old.

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Art Room Britt

While sometimes jarring, Basquiat’s work channeled emotion, improvisation, and free association, often in the form of a self-portrait. Encourage kids to try some expressionist painting of their own, with a self-portrait in Basquiat’s unique style.

Kara Walker

Filmmaker, printmaker, and silhouette artist Kara Walker was born in 1969 in Stockton, CA. Walker’s paintings, murals, and mixed media pieces reflect the struggles of the Black community, calling out racism, generational poverty, and gender inequality.

Walker’s artistic efforts were encouraged from a young age, with afternoons spent drawing with her artist father in his studio. When Kara was 13, her father accepted a teaching position at Georgia State University, and the family packed up and headed south. 

The move was a culture shock, but Walker continued her art studies, eventually graduating from Georgia State with a BFA. She would continue her education at the Rhode Island School of Design, where Walker would hone her focus, find her voice, and rock the art world with her bold style and strong perspective.

Her work has won many awards, and challenges viewers to face prejudice and create social change. Today, she primarily works out of her studio in Brooklyn, but her work can be found in galleries throughout the United States and Europe.

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Arty Crafty Kids

Encourage the little artist in your life to branch out with a new art project. Silhouette art is a unique style that helps develop shape recognition. Arty Crafty Kids pulled together this easy tutorial for introducing silhouette art to a younger audience – no scissors required. 

Bisa Butler

Awash in vibrant jewel tones, Bisa Butler’s colorful quilts are stunning, story-telling portraits celebrating Black lives, Black culture, and stories all but lost to history and decades of oppression.

Art and sewing were always facets of Bisa Butler's world, and she won her first art award at only four years old. Her father was a Ghanian native, and she took a special interest in African fabrics, traditional patterns, and what they meant. Her passion for fiber art would lead her to study art at Montclair, and eventually from Howard University, a historically Black university in Washington, D.C.  When her grandmother became gravely ill, Butler picked up a quilting needle to make a quilt to comfort her through her final days. Her grandmother passed, but Butler’s interest in quilting grew, and she enrolled in a class to formally study the craft.

Her work has been exhibited all over the country in a wide array of venues and publications, including several Smithsonian Museum locations, Disney's Epcot Center, and several commissioned quilted covers for Time Magazine.

Interested in adding one of her pieces to your private collection? Be prepared to wait a while, because her waiting list spans several years for private commissions – but that’ll give you time to save up, because her quilts typically sell at auction for over $70,000!

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Butler didn’t drive right into creating painterly-like quilts right from the jump – she had to learn and master quilting basics first. Head over to Craftsy for tips on how to start quilting as a family

Nick Cave

There’s no one category big enough to describe artist Nick Cave. His work is a feast for the senses that plays with concepts of fashion, sound, color, and physical interaction. A Missouri native, he credits his large family for helping him develop his creative interests, and using his older siblings’ hand-me-downs to experiment creating his first pieces. 

While still in art school, Cave met prolific dancer and choreographer Alvin Alley, and began spending summers in NYC studying with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. With the training under his belt, he created a new type of performance art that merged his interest in fabrics with sound and movement.

The wondrous spectacles Cave produces often feature Soundsuits – a sort of high-art mascot performers wear that makes sound when moved in different ways. Performances like HEARD in Grand Central Station are intended to be shared experiences, meant to challenge social norms, societal roles, and personal identity.

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Photo: Getty

Nick Cave proves that all the world’s a stage, so if your child is a born performer, let them know they don’t need to wait for the right theater to come along – they can create their own! Share a few simple tips for creating a show at home for the family, and let 'em bring down the house from their very own living room.  

Loïs Mailou Jones

Loïs Mailou Jones, born in 1905, was a lifelong student, influential teacher, and prolific artist whose career spanned seven decades. Her work was greatly influenced by the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s, with a focus on human dignity and individual identity. She experimented with fabrics and African masks, and was an avid student, obtaining degrees from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts of Boston, and the Design Art School of Boston. After graduation, she attempted to apply for a job at her alma mater, and was bluntly told by the director of Boston Museum School to “go find a job where her people lived.” 

Jones eventually found her way to the historically African American school Howard University in Washington, D.C., where she honed her focus, with masterpieces that reflected her pride in her African roots as much as they celebrate her American history. During her university tenure, Jones made a name for herself as a prominent contemporary painter.

In 1938, she entered a painting into the Corcoran Gallery's annual competition — but at that time, African American artists were prohibited from entering artworks into the competition themselves. A white friend, Celine Marie Tabary, entered the piece on Jones's behalf to get around the rule — and Jones won! But she was still not permitted to pick up her reward, which was mailed to her. After 53 years, the Corcoran Gallery apologized to Jones publicly, hosting an exhibition of her pieces entitled The World of Lois Mailou Jones.

Jones remained a professor of design and watercolor at Howard for forty years until she retired in 1977. She passed away in 1998, and her work is still studied and appreciated today.

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Artful Painting

Jones was instrumental in teaching a generation of painters their craft – particularly watercolors. So if your creative kiddo's ready to grab a brush, we have a list of wonderful watercolor techniques to try, like this salt painting tutorial by Artful Painting. 

Alma Woodsey Thomas

After a thirty-year career as a teacher, most retirees take it easy. But after over 40 years of organizing community art programs, performances, and student exhibitions, Alma Woodsey Thomas closed her classroom door for the last time, and opened the door to a new career exploring abstract art.

Born in Columbus, Georgia in 1891, Thomas moved with her family to Washington D.C. in 1907, shortly following the Atlanta Race Riot of 1906, in which dozens of Black people were hurt and killed. The family hoped to find a refuge from the violence, and enroll their children into continuing education. 

Thomas was able to take her first art class in high school. She liked to paint and draw, and longed to visit an art museum, but was denied entry because of her skin color. She dreamed of being an architect, but that wasn’t considered a profession for women. So Thomas followed a career in education, and strove to encourage creativity in her students. 

After a decade of teaching, Thomas went back to school herself and is believed to be the first African-American woman to ever earn a bachelor's degree in art. She took her degree back to school, this time teaching junior high at Washington’s Show Junior High School where she remained, inspiring young artists for the next 35 years.

Teaching allowed her the freedom to paint part-time, but retirement allowed Thomas to explore and expand her techniques, and her style transformed from realistic, into the iconic, vivid abstract forms she’s now known for – many of which can be found in the same museums she wasn’t allowed to access as a child.

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Arty Crafty Kids

Beat the winter blues with some wonderful wintery abstract art, guaranteed to bring your family's creative side out of hibernation. 

Kadir Nelson

If you’ve ever read a magazine, a book, listened to an album, or watched a movie, chances are you’ve seen Kadir Nelson's work. Nelson is a Los Angeles-based painter and illustrator whose award-winning pieces focus on African-American culture and history, highlighting beautifully rendered depictions of Black families and children.

Nelson was born in Washington, D.C., but his family moved, and his childhood was divided between Atlantic City, New Jersey, and San Diego, California, where they would eventually settle. His father was an educator, and his mother an author whose focus was primarily on writing about education – but Nelson’s first painting classes weren’t in a formal classroom. Nelson’s earliest training came from his Uncle Morris, who taught him important basic principals, and introduced him to oil painting.

With his family and high school art teacher’s help, Nelson developed an impressive portfolio. It caught the eye of Pratt Institute admissions in Brooklyn, where he earned a scholarship, and would go on to earn his BFA in 1996.

Early in his career, Nelson received acclaim as the creative director for  Steven Spielberg’s Amistad. He’s also partnered with Spike Lee, children’s author Nikki Grimes, had paintings featured as covers for The New Yorker magazine, was commissioned to create a portrait for the Michael Jackson estate, and a gorgeously illustrated series of speeches and songs perfect for sharing with the tiniest of future artists.  Nelson’s work has earned many awards, including multiple gold and silver medals from The New York Society of Illustrators, the Caldecott Medal, and four Coretta Scott King awards.

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Encourage kids to explore their own songwriting and art-making potential with this activity: Is there a song you really, really love? Does it make you happy? Sad? Do you bop around and dance when your jam comes on, or do you sway and sing along? Use it to create your own song lyric art! Think about the words, and illustrate the action, or how the melody and lyrics make you feel, and then share your art – and the song – with others!

Kerry James Marshall

It’s impossible to talk about contemporary Black artists without talking about Kerry James Marshall. As a leading contemporary artist, Marshall was named one of TIME Magazine's Most Influential People in 2017; the Birmingham native is renowned worldwide for his unmistakable, large scale acrylic paintings so vibrant, one feels they could step right into them and become part of the scene. 

Marshall was born in 1955, during the Civil Rights Movement. His work reflects his own history as much as it reflects the history of a nation attempting to grapple with its dark past. Marshall grew up in Los Angeles near the Black Panther Party’s headquarters, an influence he credits for his sense of civic duty and ideas about social responsibility, that would have a lasting impact on his creative direction. 

As a young artist Marshall explored mediums like comics and collage, eventually setting up his studio in Chicago, where he landed a position teaching painting at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Here, he continued his exploration of his own style and subject matter.

In 1999, Marshall delved into comics deeper with his series Rhythm Mastr, which he brought back for a revamp as part of the 57th Carnegie International in 2018. An avid reader of comics as a kid, Marshall features exclusively Black superheroes in his series, a direct challenge to the art form's historic lack of representation.

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Take a page from Kerry James Marshall’s book – his comic book, that is. Superheroes can look like anyone, and be anything, so check out this list of superhero crafts, and help kids create some new characters of their own! 

Augusta Savage

Champion of Black excellence in the arts, Augusta Savage was an important teacher and sculptor. Her remarkable works have such an energy behind their far-off gazes, they give the impression they might wink or nod at just the right moment, just out of view.

Born in a small town near Jacksonville, Florida in 1892, and christened Augusta Christne Fells, she overcame her father's strong disapproval of her interest in art and sculpture with help from encouragement at her school, where she was allowed to teach her first clay modeling class. It would become the launch point for a lifelong career dedicated to teaching art.

In 1921, Savage moved to New York City with the intent to pursue an education in the arts at Copper-Union. She made numerous attempts to study abroad, and was met with racism, sexism, and financial setbacks at every turn. Her struggles and talent did not go unnoticed by activists and supporters of the arts, and she earned several high-profile commissions and fellowships to support her successful trip to Paris in 1929. 

Savage’s time in Europe was a flurry of exhibitions and fellowship awards. She returned to NYC determined to open a studio where Black artists could flourish, and studios that would feature a whole new generation of Black artists – but it was the tail end of the Great Depression, and no one was buying art, and Savage was forced to close the spaces she was trying so hard to build.

She retired to Saugerties, NY where she kept a garden, wrote children’s books, and taught art until she died of cancer in 1962. All but forgotten about in her own time, Savage’s art and activism are revered today. She is one of the most influential and inspirational artists and educators of the century.  

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Projects With Kids

Some of the very first projects Savage modeled out of clay were simple animal shapes, so she might have loved these adorable Clay Owl Necklaces by Projects with Kids. Head to the tutorial to learn how and your child can make your own!

Kehinde Wiley

Sensational, powerful, and striking, Kehinde Wiley’s portraits blend the "Old Masters" style of realistic, dramatically posed paintings with contemporary themes and beautiful Black and brown skin tones. 

Born in 1977 in Los Angeles, California, and raised primarily by his mother, Wiley had the opportunity to study art St. Petersburg, Russia, where he fell in love with the works of the Old Masters — artists from the 1300s through the 1800s who painted realistic, detailed depictions of people and places. Studying these works helped Wiley develop his own interest in portrait painting. He continued painting after returning to the U.S., honing his technique and developing his style, influenced by American artists like Kerry James Marshall.

He studied at the San Francisco Art Institute, and earned his MFA from Yale, before going on to become an artist-in-residence at the Studio Art Museum in Harlem. Wiley’s subjects are everyday people he’s run into on the streets of Harlem, or Los Angeles, or in the case of his international project, The World Stage, people from all over the world. His subjects might be ordinary people, but Wiley’s portraits make them appear as grand heroes; powerful, uplifting depictions of radiant, unknown Black role models.

While already a prominent figure in the art world, Wiley’s work reached a wider audience when he was chosen by Barack Obama to paint an official portrait for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. The following year, he was named one of TIME Magazine’s Most Influential People, and his influence on contemporary art continues.

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Red Ted Art

Everyone thinks they know what a face looks like – until they try to draw one. This interesting and engaging art exercise by Red Ted Art encourages young artists to look at their own faces in the mirror, and identify things like the color of their skin, hair, and eyes, the different shapes of their features, and where they are on a face. Read more about the fascinating process of developing a portrait activity for toddlers, and then try the project.

Read About More Black Changemakers Who Made the World a Better Place!

Updated January 2022