Before the black square became the official aesthetic of doth that protest too much, Black artists and curators were using their lenses, brushes, and keystrokes to translate cultural experiences, diversify collections, and add context to symbols.
A 2019 study by the nonprofit Public Library of Science, found that approximately 85.4% of artists on display in major U.S. museums are White. The stories behind the canvases are just as bland. The Mellon Foundation found that 88% of people hired for executive and conservation roles in leadership at these institutions were white as well.
Anecdotal instances of Black art being systematically appropriated and devalued tumbled out this summer with Black professionals speaking openly about their struggles. But amidst the empty virtue signaling and ironic attempts to acquire diversity for cents on the dollar, is a group of creators and educators determined to make a difference.
Black curators and artists are striving higher and stretching further to introduce new ideas about identity, race, and power, combat the evils of misogynoir and erasure, and recognize the collective contributions of the Black community.
Meet 14 of these contemporary artists and curators you should know below.
Widely recognized for reframing snapshots of vintage Black glamour, Simpson’s collages are magical mash-ups. Recently she wowed the world with an exclusive ESSENCE cover featuring Rihanna that spoke to the powerful themes of gender, race and identity present in her work.
Rihanna by Lorna Simpson, Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth
Sargent is a sought after curator and writer devoted to encouraging the critical engagement of overlooked creators. Just this year, Gagosian named him director and curator of its gallery. His first book, “The New Black Vanguard: Photography between Art and Fashion” was released in 2019.
Mehretu’s breathtaking paintings have been exhibited at the Whitney and Gemini G.E.L
LaBouvier is a Basquiat scholar, writer, philanthropist and guest curator who has boldly spoken out about her experiences with systemic racism in the art world.
Bennet challenges iconography by manipulating pervasive images using unexpected symbols and gestures.
Casteel’s large-scale paintings of subjects in their own communities snatch audiences’ gaze. Her solo show at the New Museum, Within Reach, brought the nuances of the bodega and the braiding shop to the bowery.
Olujimi’s work uses familiar objects as vessels to transport you through time, memory, and grief.
Butler assigns an identity to her subjects through quilted portraits that incorporate a variety of fibers, including silk, cotton, West African wax, and kente cloth. Using the National Archives as a reference, she has transformed Depression-era images of Black people into eruptions of color with regal charm, fighting aesthetic narratives that erase Black joy.
James became the first full-time curator at the Guggenheim in 2019 when she signed on to serve as the Associate Curator of Contemporary Art. She also curated the celebrated exhibition Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power during her time at the Brooklyn Museum. Her research and writing has appeared in essay collections and books.
Okoro is a Nigerian-American artist who elevates fashion illustration traditions to combat misogynoir and deconstruct sexting culture.
Morgan is an independent curator and art advisor who previously served as Associate Curator of American art at the Indianapolis Museum of Art Galleries at Newfields where she used her background in museum studies and Afro-American studies and public history to critically examine the role of race in American art and visual culture.
Dr. Brittany Webb
Dr. Webb was named the first Evelyn and Will Kaplan Curator of Twentieth-Century Art and the John Rhoden Collection at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 2020. She uses her anthropological expertise to add the appropriate context to exhibitions and promote the institution’s mission of “celebrate and investigate the stories of American art.”
Cartwright’s affectionate oil paintings expose the delicate beauty of Black women’s quiet moments.
Murrell is the Associate Curator of Nineteenth and Twentieth-Century Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She curated the New York exhibition of Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today which centered on the value of the Black female form in visual arts from abolition era Europe to present-day United States.