Black visual artists may not be a topic that comes up in everyday conversation. But with more and more bright minds creating mixed media that expresses the Black experience, it's a subject that you may want to brush up on for your next dinner party. Here is a crash course on seven Black visual artists whose work you should know—from the color-drenched realism of Jordan Casteel to Gordon Parks black-and-white cultural snapshots—so you can drop a few gems of knowledge between courses.
Friends, family and loves are the muses for the artwork Jordan Casteel creates. Her first solo exhibition, Visible Man, features nude Black men seated in varying positions within a home setting. The New York City-based artist's most recent work, In bloom, branches beyond human subjects and features aspects of nature, from magnolia fields to flowers grouped in a ceramic vase.
Born in 1989, Casteel is part of an emerging generation of Black visual artists who exclusively paint people of color, and her pieces have sold for just under $1 million.
Mickalene Thomas’ work is inspired by artists throughout history, from 19th-century French paintings to Blaxploitation films of the 1970s. It shines through her works, which are based on her own photographs and then rendered in mixed media. While she's been dubbed the queen of suggestive nudes, one of Thomas’ most successful mixed media works, Racquel Reclining Wearing Purple Jumpsuit is fully covered. A collection of oil, acrylic, silkscreen, rhinestones, faux pearls, glitter, graphite and flock on wood panel, the painting sold for $1.8 million in 2021. Thomas also created, back in 2008, the first individual portrait of First Lady Michelle Obama.
Collage, sculpture, performance, video and sound, are all second nature to Derrick Adams. Hailing from Baltimore, his work is a study of African American experiences, which are intertwined with history, personal identification and public consumerism. His most famous collections include the Floater series which depicts Black people lounging on swimming-pool inflatables. Looks, a new work, celebrates the versatility of Black hair through a series of paintings that feature colorful and enticing wig designs on top of color-blocked mannequin-like heads.
Born in Columbus, Georgia, Amy Sherald is behind the official portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama. Sherald focuses her art around Black identity and heritage, using saturated color and grey tones to bring her images to life. Embodying the concept of “stylized realism,” she concentrates on Black lives in ordinary circumstances which leads to extraordinary visual tableaus.
Texas native Deborah Roberts captures the innocent nature of Black children in her art. Rendering her work on white canvases, Roberts uses a mix of photography, collage and patterned materials to create her portraits. Through this combination of mixed media, she explores the complexity of blackness through the themes of race, identity and gender. Her 2012 "Little Debbies," made out of four pictures of Roberts as a child, is her perfect example of how Black children have grappled with, and then acknowledged their own skin, and in turn, demand that the world do the same.
Kehinde Wiley is the artist behind Barack Obama’s official presidential portrait, which has traveled the nation. The half-Nigerian, half-Afro-American creator is the first Black, gay artist to receive such an honor. Tapping into hip hop and Black culture, Wiley’s subjects are often depicted in casual clothing on a backdrop of vivid leafy and floral motifs. His models? People Wiley encounters on the street with whom he collaborates. This helps to recreate their authentic representation on canvas. His 2009 coffee table book, Black Light, features some of his early works.
Famed photographer Gordon Parks broke color barriers in the 1940s, paving the way for the next generation of visual artists. He spent decades portraying the struggles and successes of Black people during his time, from poor societies to the civil rights movement. His most famous works include the 1942 photograph American Gothic featuring Ella Watson, an African American cleaning woman he knew from his Julius Rosenwald Fellowship with the Farm Security Association. She is holding a mop and broom while positioned in front of the American flag. Nearly 15 years later, he shot Outside Looking In. Captured for Life magazine, where he was the first African-American photographer for the publication, it features a group of Black children overlooking a segregated park in Mobile, Alabama, circa 1956.