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14 Incredible Black, Latino & Asian Artists Every Art Teacher MUST Know About

14 Incredible Black, Latino & Asian Artists Every Art Teacher MUST Know About

Written by:
Lillie Therieau
Jul 28, 2022

What kinds of artists did you learn about in school? I’m willing to bet that the list is pretty limited. Most of us learn about the same group of dead, white and overwhelmingly male artists. However, at IPMM we know how important representation is in arts education

Students connect more deeply when they learn about artists that look like them or who may have similar life experiences. Representation is empowering, because it shows students that anyone can be an artist! Teaching representative artists makes art class more relevant for students, especially in a public school setting, where the majority of students are non-white. 

This list of 14 diverse artists can replace the typical picks to teach in your art classroom. Each artist works in a different medium, subject, or style, and their diverse work is a perfect vehicle to teach students about the power and impact of art.

14 Diverse Artists Everyone Should Know About

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Kehinde Wiley 

Kehinde Wiley is remaking the art of the portrait, rendering it more inclusive, interesting, and political. He plays with visual conventions, remixing, and switching up expectations. Wiley paints regular people and well-known cultural figures alike, reimagining them as royalty, nobility, or fearsome military heroes. He’s most well-known for his commissioned portrait of President Obama in 2017 for the National Portrait Gallery, where his portrait and Amy Sherald’s portrait of Michelle Obama were the first pieces by black artists to be included. 

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Kehinde Wiley’s diverse pastiche points to his deep familiarity with art history, both Western and non-Western, which allows him the leeway to play so freely with assumptions and symbolism. He appropriates elements of a source work, as in his Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps, based on Jacques-Louis David’s original 19th-century work, while tweaking the way that power is conferred on the portrait’s subject. In Wiley’s paintings, the sitters wear basketball jerseys, puffer jackets, baseball caps, ceremonial outfits, kente cloth, bodysuits, or graphic t-shirts. They’re modern and not, sometimes carrying swords and scepters, or riding into battle on a horse. Wiley provides a new answer to the Old Masters’ version of power, adding in style, swagger, and a bold stare that ensnares the viewer. 

 

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Bisa Butler 

Bisa Butler is at the forefront of contemporary textile art, crafting intricate and colorful pieces with quilting, embroidery, and hand-dyed fabrics. Butler is outspoken about the role of textile art, and quilts in particular, in black culture and history. Quilts were a communal activity undertaken by enslaved women, using scraps of fabric and whatever else they could find to keep their families warm. After slavery, quilting knowledge was passed down generationally. 

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In Butler’s quilted works, she incorporates kente cloth, and traditional African wax printed fabrics so that her figures are “adorned with and made up of the cloth of our ancestors”. She’s known for forgoing realistic flesh colors for jewel tones and using many bright patterns in one piece. Butler’s portrait subjects almost always look directly out at the viewer, forcing them to connect and engage in the discussion that she creates. 

 

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Nina Chanel Abney 

Nina Chanel Abney is a contemporary artist whose work explores the impact of the digital on our everyday lives. Her flat expanses of super-pigmented color, eye-popping patterns, and super-stylized figures combine to create a highly unique style, where Abney explores issues of race, gender, and homophobia.

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Although Abney’s work is manual, she has said that it has a lot to do with the digital reality of living in the present day. The fast-paced barrage of images that people are faced with on social media leaves little room for thought and critical examination. Abney’s paintings call for that moment of reflection and allow viewers to slow down. Her more recent paintings focus on the concept of a queer Black utopia, away from conventions of heteronormative relationships. She imagines moving to the country and buying a piece of land where she and her friends and family can begin a new life. 

 

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Yayoi Kusama 

Yayoi Kusama’s star is only growing in the 9th decade of her life. The most famous living Japanese artist, she’s well-known for her polka dots, expressive patterns, and mirrored rooms. Yayoi Kusama moved to NYC as a young artist and made waves as an Asian woman artist whose work was receiving mainstream adulation. However, she faced racism and seixism while living in the US, as male artists frequently ripped off her ideas and copied her work, betting that no one would believe her if she tried to tell her story. She was eventually driven into a severe mental health crisis and moved back to Japan. 

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Kusama has lived in a mental health facility in Japan since the late 1970s and is very open about the effect that her mental health has had on her art. For Kusama, art-making is a way of managing her mental illness and centering herself. She has finally broken through to receive the recognition she deserves in her home country. In 2019, the Yayoi Kusama Museum opened in Tokyo. Today, Kusama’s art is exhibited in museums all over the world. 

 

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Kara Walker

Kara Walker is best known for her large-scale installations made entirely of silhouettes cut from black paper. Her life size paper tableaux address race, the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, sexuality, and power in America. She questions and disrupts romantic ideas of the American past, and works to uncover the truth of how enslaved people were seen and treated in the Antebellum South. 

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The stark contrast of the black paper silhouettes with the white walls on which they are hung function on several symbolic levels. The subjects cut from paper are two-dimensional and condensed into their stark outlines, filled with empty black space. Walker uses this flatness and simplicity of form to suggest stereotypes, tropes, and over-simplification. However, she then disrupts these ideas with the incredible detail of the cut-outs and the complexity of her scenes. In this way, she questions how narratives concerning race and violence have been flattened, simplified, or reduced to serve ulterior motives. When Walker began incorporating race into her artwork, she was hesitant to do so at first, worrying that it would seem “too obvious”. However, Kara Walker’s complex, ambiguous, and knotty examinations of race are laughably far from obvious. They spark deep critical thought, questioning, and discussions from her audiences, wherever they may be exhibited. 

 

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Kerry James Marshall

Perhaps the most famous living black painter, Kerry James Marshall’s paintings are stunning explorations of the diversity of black life in America. They include the homes of middle-class black families, black families living in decaying housing projects, surrealist images, and snapshots of everyday black life at restaurants, on first dates, at a barbershop, or resting at home. He also frequently paints in the vein of the Old Masters, including images of artists painting themselves, regal portraits, and heroic voyages. In these paintings, Marshall recasts as an entirely black narrative the whitewashed version of art history that we cling onto.

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The rich imagery of a Kerry James Marshall painting is full of color, emotion, and memory. Each new piece he creates embraces blackness as a signifier of difference, to explore the relationship of black people to American identity, the lack of black people as subjects or creators in the main canon of art history, and to renegotiate the American conception of beauty. Marshall paints his figures with skin that is often pure black, referencing a kind of essential identity of blackness that has been socially constructed. He re-appropriates this construction as a way to express universal experiences and celebrate communal triumphs.

 

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Augusta Savage 

Few artists have so profoundly blazed an untrodden path as Augusta Savage did in the 1920s and 30s. A black woman artist, Savage had to fight to create space for her art at every turn. She was awarded merit prizes and fellowships throughout her life, only to have them rescinded when the committee or organizations found out that she was black. Instead of keeping quiet about this routine display of racism, Savage always spoke out about the way the supposedly accepting art world had treated her. 

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During the Great Depression, she opened her own art school in Harlem. Accessible, affordable and diverse, Savage’s school sought to remedy what she saw as the flaws in the art world. Augusta Savage is a truly important artist who changed the art world for the better, supporting the next generation of non-white artists that came up in New York City. 

 

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Ai Weiwei 

Ai Weiwei is the most famous Chinese artist alive! His prolific body of sculptural, installation, video and performance pieces span several continents and dozens of mediums. Weiwei’s art often deals with power, corruption, displacement, and the tension between tradition and modernity. He most often creates works about the political atmosphere in China, although his work also focuses on freedom movements throughout history, the refugee crisis in Syria, and the surveillance state, both in China and globally. Weiwei is very interested in playing with the global perception of China, and of Chinese citizens’ flawed perceptions of their own history. 

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Ai Weiwei’s resistance to the oppression the Chinese government levels on its citizens is a source of inspiration to those living in China and members of the diaspora abroad. He constantly challenges the status quo, uplifting truth and freedom through his art. 

 

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Jean-Michel Basquiat

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s influence on the contemporary art world is visible wherever you might happen to look. He was the first well-known artist to incorporate elements of graffiti into his work, weaving high and low culture together in visual artwork. However, his artistic career was cut tragically short when he died at the age of 27 of a heroin overdose. Today Basquiat is considered one of the most famous American artists of all time, a fame he never achieved in life, as his work has posthumously accrued enormous value and recognition. 

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Jean-Michel Basquiat was an artist obsessed with binaries. His work often explored themes like poor versus wealthy, white versus black, and integration versus segregation. He was known to paint in expensive suits and go to gallery openings in paint-splattered ripped-up clothes. He sometimes gave his work away even when it was selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars, and routinely bowled over everyone’s expectations of what a successful young artist should do. His death at such a young age cut his prolific career short, but his body of work stands as a uniquely kaleidoscopic and intimate testament to his creative genius. 

 

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Lorna Simpson

Lorna Simpson is a multimedia artist best known for her black and white images displayed next to expressive and poetic snippets of text, as well as her detailed collages featuring black women with fantastical hairdos. Simpson’s art is ambiguous, leaving space for imagination and deeper consideration. She delves deeply into identity, bodies, race, and stereotypes, often removing the identifying features from her figures to make them universal. 

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Lorna Simpson’s photo work frequently references histories of American racism and sexism towards black women. Through her use of the anonymous black female form, she creates a conceptual space to explore the contemporary identity of black women in America, using the posed and constructed space of her images to exorcize, flesh out, and play with these lingering prejudices and stereotypes. Simpson’s career has been a critical trailblazer for intersectional feminism in the art world, that is, art that explores the intersection of race, class, and gender identity. 

 

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Salvador Dali

The mind-melting, dreamy world of Salvador Dali enthralls and confuses audiences around the world. Dali’s paintings are full of dream images, unconscious symbols, and anxiety-inducing subjects and themes. His work often dealt with love, sex, obsession, fear, and mortality. He was also a fan of science and mathematics, and kept up with the latest discoveries in both fields, often incorporating them into his work. 

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Although Salvador Dali is one of the most famous artists of all time, his legacy is incredibly complicated. He was a true eccentric, showing up to a lecture in a Rolls Royce full of cauliflowers, throwing public fits when he was angry, and bringing an ocelot everywhere he went. Many accused Dali of selling out, allowing his art to become commercialized as he rose in fame, and worked for companies like Disney. An apologist for Hitler and advocate for the Franco regime, Dali’s self-proclaimed independent politics were revealed to be largely farcical. Fans of Dali’s art are forced to interrogate the career and life of this complicated figure. 

 

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Takashi Murakami 

Takashi Murakami has truly succeeded in making Japan one of the most critical players in the contemporary art world and pushing at the arbitrary cultural barriers still in place in much of the Western world. To do so, he established himself in America and then exported his art back to Japan. He then created opportunities to foster young Japanese artists at home and lift them up to become well-known contemporary artists. He has realized this goal in his own extensive curatorial efforts, the creation of his own art fair, and the opening of his own factory, where apprentices work to fabricate his pieces and gain experience. 

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Murakami’s dazzling artwork straddles the line between cultural product and high art. His paintings, sculptures, digital work, and merchandise are brought to life by the artist’s magical and somewhat psychedelic contemporary Pop Art style. Laughing flowers and the omnipresent Mr. DOB character pops up again and again, as a kind of plot throughline in his body of work. He has worked with many famous musicians and designer clothing houses, as well as selling licensed merchandise of his own work for affordable prices. Murakami’s work with these artists and his own merchandise make his art much more affordable for people beyond the super-rich. 

 

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Frida Kahlo 

This artist needs no introduction! Frida Kahlo has taken her place as one of the most famous artists in the world. A Mexican surrealist painter working in the 1930s and 40s, Kahlo’s art is dense with symbols and recurring motifs. She often paints herself in various surreal and strange settings, exploring aspects of identity and personal history. Kahlo’s self-portraits depicted the artist in conversations with her ancestors, her lovers, or herself. Many paintings dealt with themes of disability and chronic pain and were groundbreaking in their honesty about that experience. 

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Her work was also very important in the post-Revolutionary Mexican art movement, which was navigating the search for a Mexican identity after the Revolution through the creation of visual culture. Kahlo received some recognition in her lifetime, but the rediscovery of her work would take until the 1970s when feminist art historians and artists were excavating the legacy of forgotten women artists. 

 

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Diego Rivera

Diego Rivera is considered one of the forefathers of Mexican Nationalist art, and one of Los Tres Grandes, the three greatest Mexican muralists of all time. His artwork helped to rebuild Mexico’s sense of self and identity after the Mexican Revolution. A whole new set of symbols, heroes, and values had to be established and communicated through Nationalist artwork, to cement the identity of the newly reborn state. 

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His murals depict scenes of everyday Mexican life, the history of the Mexican Revolution, the folklore about the founding of the country, and Mesoamerican indigenous roots of the Mexican people. He was a fervently political figure, involved in Communist causes, and with workers’ movements in Mexico. Though Rivera’s work was mostly created in Mexico, he also executed murals in America.  His most controversial commission was for the Rockefeller Center in NYC, then newly finished. However, his positive portrayal of leftist figures during a wave of fervent McCarthyism led him to be fired, and the unfinished murals to be chipped off the wall, to global outrage. 


If you’d like to learn more about the artists introduced above, as well as other underrepresented artists, both living and deceased, check out the Not (Just) Dead White Guys Coloring Book. It includes 24 diverse artists, both living and deceased, who break out of the barriers generally imposed on art history education. 

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Written by:
Lillie Therieau
Jul 28, 2022

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