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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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