Close this search box.
Celebrating 17 Black Artists

Celebrating the Voices and Visions of 17 Black Artists

Artists enrich our lives with beauty and meaning, inviting us to see the world through fresh eyes. This is especially true for Black artists, whose works delve into the rich tapestry of African and Black American experiences. Their art, spanning paintings, sculptures, music, and literature, offers a vibrant celebration of culture, history, and identity.

These artists have played a pivotal role in movements such as the Harlem Renaissance, a period marked by an explosion of cultural, social, and artistic expressions that celebrated Black life and cultural identity. Far from focusing solely on themes of inequity, this era, and others like the Black Arts Movement, embraced the joy, resilience, and creativity inherent in Black communities, contributing significantly to the global art scene. Their artworks, displayed in prestigious venues like the Museum of Modern Art, have left an indelible mark on art history worldwide.

While it’s true that Black artists have faced—and continue to face—significant challenges, including under recognition and barriers to fair compensation, it’s crucial to celebrate their achievements and contributions. Black History Month offers a prime opportunity to shine a spotlight on these creatives, advocating for diversity and inclusion in the art world. Let’s honor the legacy of Black artists by exploring the depth and breadth of their contributions, from those who laid the foundations of cultural movements to contemporary figures shaping the future of art.

Join us on a journey through African American art history, where we’ll highlight key figures who, with their creativity, bravery, and empathy, have changed the world. Discover the artists who, across generations, have celebrated life and culture through their work, contributing to a richer, more inclusive understanding of art and humanity.

1. Kara Walker

Kara Walker is renowned for her innovative use of cut-paper silhouettes. These dynamic, thought-provoking pieces transform simple black forms into complex narratives that captivate and challenge the viewer. While Walker’s work often confronts themes of inequity, violence, and the historical oppression of African Americans, her portfolio is not limited to these subjects alone.

Her artistry extends beyond the exploration of these heavy themes to include a broader examination of identity, power, and the nuanced dynamics of history and culture. Walker’s silhouettes, though famous for their stark depiction of Antebellum-era folklore and its legacy, also engage with a wide array of subjects. Her creations are a testament to the complexity of the African American experience, offering commentary that ranges from the deeply personal to the broadly historical.

In addition to her iconic silhouette installations, Walker’s work encompasses a variety of mediums and techniques, showcasing her versatility as an artist. From her detailed drawings and prints to her ambitious public sculptures, Walker employs a rich palette of artistic languages to engage with the viewer. Her ability to revive and repurpose historical art forms with contemporary relevance demonstrates a unique blend of innovation and homage to the past.

Walker’s contributions to art extend beyond her visual creations; her work invites a re-examination of the narratives that have shaped American consciousness. By challenging viewers to confront uncomfortable truths and reconsider the stories we tell about our history, Walker plays a crucial role in the ongoing dialogue about race, memory, and identity in America.

2. Jean-Michel Basquiat

Notorious throughout the 1980s for his street art conveying concepts such as segregation and poverty, Jean-Michel Basquiat is said to have “lived like a flame,” driven by passion. His work was groundbreaking within the neo-expressionist movement, but he also held a lot of celebrity appeal: When he was featured in The New York Times in 1985, he was proclaimed to be an “art star.”

Since his early death, Basquiat has secured a cult following, with his works selling for tens of millions.

3. Hank Willis Thomas

Conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas is fascinated by — and concerned with — the systems of inequality threaded into every aspect of our modern society. Utilizing his elite photography skills to great effect, his work takes a nuanced look at the stereotypes we’ve so often been fed about the African American community, especially as they relate to film, television, and advertising.

Thomas wants to demonstrate how racism and injustice are not merely a thing of the past but, rather, a central facet of our consumerist culture. Meanwhile, he is making a difference through the nonprofit For Freedoms, which aims to boost civic engagement

4. Tre Seals

Tre Seals is a groundbreaking graphic designer whose innovative work extends beyond aesthetics to address crucial social themes. As the founder of Vocal Type Co., Seals has carved a niche for himself by focusing on diversity and inclusion within the realm of typography, making him a highly relevant figure for students exploring contemporary design and social impact through art.

His work, celebrated for its unique approach to typeface design, draws inspiration from historical civil rights movements, aiming to bring underrepresented stories to the forefront of visual communication. By doing so, Seals contributes to a more inclusive visual culture, challenging the status quo and encouraging a dialogue about history, identity, and representation in design.

Seals’ participation in the VASD (Visual Arts and Social Design) program highlights his commitment to using design as a tool for social change. His approach to graphic design is not just about creating visually appealing content but about imparting messages that resonate with and reflect the diversity of human experiences. Through his creative endeavors, Seals has become a beacon for aspiring designers, demonstrating how art and activism can intersect to produce meaningful and transformative work.

By integrating social justice themes into his design work, Tre Seals offers a contemporary example of how artists and designers can contribute to societal discourse and change. His commitment to diversity in design education and practice makes his work particularly relevant to students seeking to understand the role of art and design in addressing societal issues.

5. Norman Lewis

Norman Lewis was a talented abstract painter and one of the only African Americans to gain recognition in the earliest days of the abstract expressionist movement. His work was still tragically overlooked for years, although it is now finally starting to get the respect and acclaim it has always deserved.

Lewis was notable for his dynamic works and how they evolved so considerably over time. After capturing the most emotional and impactful moments of the 1930s, he moved into new abstractions during the 1950s while retaining a clear interest in (and understanding of) how social injustice shapes our world.

6. Betye Saar

Betye Saar, an iconic African American artist, has been transforming the landscape of contemporary art with her powerful assemblage works. Saar’s creations delve into the African American experience, intertwining themes of spirituality, racism, and feminism, making her a pivotal figure in the discussion of race and identity in art. Her work challenges societal norms and invites viewers to reconsider historical narratives and cultural stereotypes.

Saar’s most renowned piece, “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima,” is a quintessential example of her ability to repurpose everyday objects into profound statements on identity and history. By reimagining the stereotypical image of Aunt Jemima, Saar critiques racial caricatures and reclaim power through art. Her innovative use of mixed media combines found objects, photographs, and traditional African symbols to create layered, narrative-driven pieces that resonate with cultural and historical depth.

Throughout her career, Saar has consistently explored themes relevant to the African American community, using her art as a medium for social change and cultural expression. Her contributions go beyond aesthetics, offering critical reflections on the complexities of race, gender, and spirituality in America.

Saar’s work encourages a re-examination of African American history and identity, making her an essential figure for those interested in the intersections of art, activism, and cultural heritage. Her legacy is a testament to the power of art to challenge, inspire, and transform our understanding of the world.

7. Kerby Jean-Raymond

Kerby Jean-Raymond, the visionary founder of Pyer Moss, stands at the forefront of fashion, blending storytelling, activism, and innovation to redefine what fashion means in the modern world. Jean-Raymond’s work transcends traditional boundaries of the industry, using his platform to address social justice issues, celebrate Black culture, and provoke thoughtful discussion on race, politics, and identity.

Pyer Moss’s collections are more than just clothing; they are powerful narratives that challenge societal norms and highlight underrepresented stories within the African American community. Jean-Raymond’s approach to fashion is revolutionary, incorporating elements of theatre, film, and art to create immersive experiences that resonate deeply with audiences. His shows are celebrated for their cultural significance, often serving as platforms for social commentary and community engagement.

Beyond his collections, Jean-Raymond’s influence extends to his advocacy for diversity and inclusion within the fashion industry, making him a role model for aspiring designers and creatives. His commitment to using fashion as a force for change has garnered international acclaim, positioning him as a pivotal figure in the push towards a more equitable and inclusive fashion landscape.

Kerby Jean-Raymond’s journey is a testament to the power of fashion as a medium for storytelling and social impact, making his work particularly relevant to students interested in exploring how creativity can be harnessed to influence society and culture.

8. Kehinde Wiley

Kehinde Wiley has revolutionized the world of portraiture by infusing it with fresh perspectives and contemporary relevance. Known for his vibrant, larger-than-life paintings that blend traditional techniques with modern themes, Wiley’s work challenges and redefines norms of representation in art. By portraying African American individuals in poses and settings that echo classical artworks, Wiley bridges the past with the present, offering a powerful commentary on identity, power, and society.

Wiley’s most notable work, perhaps, is his portrait of former President Barack Obama, which broke new ground by presenting a sitting president in a way that was both deeply personal and profoundly symbolic. This portrait not only cemented Wiley’s place in art history but also underscored his role in shaping the narrative around African American identity and excellence.

Beyond his celebrated portraits, Wiley’s commitment to diversity and inclusivity in the arts is evident through his initiatives to provide platforms and visibility for underrepresented artists. His work not only captivates viewers with its bold aesthetics and intricate detail but also sparks important conversations about race, culture, and history in America.

Kehinde Wiley’s influence extends beyond the canvas, as he continues to inspire a new generation of artists to explore and express their identities through art. His contributions to contemporary art make his work particularly relevant to students and young creatives looking to understand the role of art in social discourse and personal expression.

9. Catt Small

Catt Small, as a game designer and developer, is reshaping the landscape of interactive media with her innovative and inclusive approach to game creation. Small’s work stands out for its focus on diversity, storytelling, and accessibility, making her a significant figure for students interested in the convergence of technology, art, and social impact.

With a career that spans various roles within the gaming industry, Small has contributed to the development of engaging and meaningful games that challenge traditional narratives and embrace a wide array of perspectives. Her projects often explore themes relevant to the African American experience, as well as broader social issues, through immersive gameplay and thoughtful design.

Beyond her contributions to game development, Small is also passionate about education and empowerment within the tech and gaming communities. She actively works to provide resources, mentorship, and support for underrepresented voices in the field, striving to create a more inclusive and equitable gaming landscape.

Catt Small’s influence extends beyond her game titles; she is a role model for aspiring game designers and developers, demonstrating the power of games as a medium for storytelling, cultural expression, and social commentary. Her work not only entertains but also educates and inspires, making it especially relevant to students exploring the intersections of art, technology, and activism.

10. Toni Morrison

As one of America’s most famous and inspiring novelists, Toni Morrison used the power of the written word to explain the complexities of the Black experience — and especially the experience of being a Black woman. She earned widespread acclaim with her novel Song of Solomon, which expands upon themes from her noteworthy early works (such as Sula and The Bluest Eye) but expands to detail a painful and powerful century of African American history.

Morrison was often referred to as a “poetic writer” but did not appreciate this categorization, as she felt that drawing too much attention to her lyrical accomplishments took attention away from the strength of her thematic content. These days, her body of work has an undeniable influence on novelists and other artists eager to follow in her footsteps.

11. Maya Angelou

As one of the most inspirational and aspirational figures of the 20th and early 21st centuries, Maya Angelou attracted a great deal of attention with the iconic autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. A sobering story that includes many painful moments, these recollections provide a glimpse into Angelou’s immense talent.

In addition to her many autobiographies and books of poetry, Angelou was also a major presence in the theater scene, where, as in poetry and literature, she helped to usher in greater diversity. Across the many styles and mediums she explored, she wanted to share her experience because she believed “I owe it to you to tell you.”

12. Spike Lee

Beloved film director and screenwriter Spike Lee continually explores difficult but important topics through his cinematic works. He is especially committed to exploring the complexity and evolution of race relations through a variety of films grounded (in different ways) within the Black urban environment. His most memorable works include Malcolm X and Do the Right Thing. His impact on cinema is undeniable, as he has not only broadened viewers’ perspectives with his own work but also encouraged many other African American filmmakers to share their stories.

13. Mickalene Thomas

Mickalene Thomas, a dynamic force in contemporary art, challenges and expands the boundaries of representation, beauty, and the African American female identity through her groundbreaking work. Thomas is renowned for her bold, multi-textured paintings and mixed-media installations that explore femininity, race, sexuality, and beauty through the lens of her subjects, often drawing from popular culture and the art historical canon.

Her distinctive use of rhinestones, acrylics, and enamel showcases a unique style that combines various textures and mediums to create complex, vibrant portraits and landscapes. Thomas’s art not only captivates with its aesthetic appeal but also provokes thoughtful discourse on the representation of Black women in art and society, making her work profoundly relevant to discussions on diversity, identity, and empowerment.

Thomas’s exhibitions and installations provide immersive experiences that invite viewers to engage with the narratives she crafts, reflecting her vision of a world where African American women are seen, celebrated, and understood in all their complexity. By incorporating elements of pop art, classical genres, and contemporary cultural references, she bridges the past with the present, inviting a dialogue that spans generations.

Mickalene Thomas’s contribution to contemporary art extends beyond her visual creations; she actively participates in educational initiatives and public talks, aiming to inspire the next generation of artists. Her work is particularly significant for students exploring the intersections of art, identity, and social justice, offering a powerful example of how creativity can be used to challenge stereotypes and foster a more inclusive cultural dialogue.

14. Aretha Franklin

Frequently referred to as the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin got listeners tapping their toes with catchy songs such as Respect and I Say a Little Prayer. Heavily involved in the fight for racial justice and women’s rights, Franklin believed that music could pave the path to a better world. Other accomplishments include being named the first woman in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, plus earning a Grammy Legend Award and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

15. Beyoncé

The epitome of the modern pop star, Beyoncé has exhibited true artistry in her work while making waves with her signature staccato style. She first found game as a member of the pop group Destiny’s Child but soon set out on her own, releasing several remarkable studio albums and attracting massive audiences to her concert tours.

Beyoncé’s Super Bowl performance exemplified her music’s Black female perspective, but no matter where she is performing or which types of albums she records, her charisma and talent empower listeners on a global scale.

16. Alvin Ailey

As the founder of the iconic and eponymous Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Alvin Ailey paid homage to the unique and deeply complicated experiences of African Americans. His awe-inspiring choreography found inspiration in ballet, modern dance, and traditional African dances.

In addition to transforming storytelling through concert dance, Ailey also aimed to bring artistic opportunities to underserved communities. He believed that artistic education could be deeply beneficial to people from all backgrounds, and this emphasis ultimately revolutionized how African Americans participated in and contributed to the dance world.

17. Jacob Lawrence

The United States art scene was highly segregated for a long time, but that began to change with help from Jacob Lawrence. Instrumental in breaking down divides during the mid-20th century, Lawrence made his mark with serialized works such as Migration of the Negro. He used the term ‘dynamic cubism’ to describe his style while documenting the experiences of such notable historical figures as Frederick Douglass. Many works also captured the intricacies of daily life in New York City, especially from the perspective of African American residents.

Make an Artistic Statement With RMCAD

Ready to share your story through the power of art? At the Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design, we strongly understand the power of diverse perspectives, which we encourage through our many art-focused degree programs. Reach out today to learn more about our online and in-person opportunities.


We're accepting applications for our next session. No fee, Apply Today!

Classes Starting Soon!

Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design Campus

No Application fee