Black Artists in White Art History
"The role of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible." - Toni Cade Bambara
September 2020 issue of Vogue featuring a painting by Kerry James Marshall











"Recognition of African history by black Americans preceded that recognition by the historical profession. Only in the post-World War Two era of colonial independence did mainstream, scholarly writing come to share black Americans' view. As black African nations became independent (beginning with Sudan in 1956, Ghana [formerly the Gold Coast] in 1975, and Nigeria and many others in 1960), academic history increasingly stressed the achievements of African societies." - Nell Irvin Painter, Creating Black Americans: African-American History and Its Meanings, 1619 to the Present, 14.

Augusta Savage with Realization, 1938.











The Conditions of Our Investigation
Seemingly few Black subjects depicted in the Global North in the pre-modern age:
  • Travel was difficult, and was largely undertaken to trade and during times of war
  • The concept of race invented in the Age of Enlightenment (1715 - 1789)
Resulting in:
  • The perception that Black people did not live and coexist with Europeans until the advent of the Atlantic slave trade in the 17th century
  • The perception that Black people did not make "art"
  • The license to dismiss and disregard the contributions of Black artists within the Western canon and art histories at large
Youth, Greece, 400 BCE.






















What is "Black"ness?
Black = “a term that, in its brusque utterance, contained a white supremacist sense of racial difference, personal contempt, and, oddly enough, complexity that came to define these new African has almost always initially meant racial identity, and only thereafter a social and/or political condition: an ingrained way of thinking that has been difficult to overcome…blackness is less a color than a metaphor for a political circumstance prescribed by struggles against economic exploitation and cultural domination: a state of consciousness that peoples of various pigmentations have experienced, empathized with, and responded to” (Powell, Black Art: A Cultural History, 8 -10).
  • Spanish speaking elite invented at least 53 words to define black people

• African
• Colored
• Negro
• Angolan
• Calabar
• Nago
• Koromanti
• Creole
• Mulatto
• Quadroon
• Octoroon

Anonymous, Las Castas, 18th century. Oil on canvas.












In his 1992 essay, "What is this 'Black' in Black Popular Culture?" Stuart Hall argues, "It is this mark of difference inside forms of popular culture...that is carried by the signifier 'black'...[that have]come to signify the black community, where these traditions were kept, and whose struggles survive the persistence of black experience...,ofthe black aesthetic..., and of the black counternarratives we have struggled to voice" (Powell, 12-13).
Brian Powell, inBlack Art: A Cultural History, offers five components defining the parameters of Black culture
  1. Struggle against claims, from within and without, of racial quintessence as against dominant cultural and political forces;
  2. Shared beliefs, value systems, and goals towards building community-based institutions and products;
  3. Structural dependence upon an acknowledged collection of life experiences, social encounters, and personal ordeals, the sum of which promotes solidarity and comraraderie that creates community;
  4. A collection of philosophical theories about the arts of the African diaspora and an aesthetic grounded in the idea of a new, that crafts a post-Emancipation and post-colonial black identity; and
  5. Characterized by forms that bear witness to that cultural difference.
Stuart Hall











What do we miss when we do not see Black subjects depicted in the art historical canon?




What is lost when Black artists are not understood as providing key, exceptional, and noteworthy contributions to the Western canon?











Monticello, Virginia, 1772.

Robert S. Duncanson, Landscape Mural, 1850 - 1852,
The Belmont (now the Taft Museum of Art), Cincinnati.











Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Thankful Poor, 1894.












James Van Der Zee, Couple with a Cadillac, 1932.











Gordon Parks, Colored Entrance, 1956.











Romare Bearden, The Dove, 1964.











Noah Purifoy, Watts Riot, 1966.











William T. Williams, Trane, 1969.











Charles the First

Jean Michel Basquiat, Charles the First, 1982.











Kara Walker, African/American, 1998.











Kehinde Wiley, Princess Victoire of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, 2012.