African American Studies Visual Arts
by
Adrienne Childs
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0027

Introduction

The study of African American art, or art by African Americans, is a field of inquiry that has grown over the course of the 20th century, along with the subject matter. The focus is the study of black artists and their works of art in media such as painting, sculpture, craft, printmaking, video, mixed media, and performance art. The field is driven by the analysis of the meanings and contexts of the works of art, as well as the lives and experiences of the artists. Works vary in terms of content and style and the relationship to issues of blackness, African American history, and identity. There has been debate as to whether black artists whose work does not engage issues of blackness in America can be considered “African American” artists. This issue has largely been discredited in favor of an understanding that any work of art by an African American, no matter the content, is a reflection of the lived experiences and multidimensional concerns of black artists in America. Critics have challenged the idea of this categorization by claiming that it creates an artificial segregation of artists and their work based on an ill-defined construct of race in America. They contend that individual artists create within the framework of multiple human identities. In spite of varying viewpoints and challenges to the delineation of the field along racial lines, the study of African American art has remained a viable mode of inquiry, in large part because of a lack of attention to black artist from mainstream histories of art. A few African Americans entered the world of professional art in the 19th century. In the early 20th century, a critical mass of black artists began to coalesce around the country. Many developed visual languages that spoke to the particular social, cultural, and spiritual aspects of black life in America. Black artists gained academic training and began to enter into the mainstream professional art world, albeit marginalized by racial strictures. During the black consciousness movement of the 1960s and 1970s, the study and analysis of the art of black Americans emerged as a cohesive field. Early literature was focused on recovering the artwork and biographies of artists lost to the indifference of the mainstream art world. Postcolonial criticism influenced the modes of analysis regarding study of the art of African Americans and the field gained new scholarly attention. The literature on this subject has grown since the last quarter of the 20th century. The sources cited in this article focus on broader thematic treatments of the field and less on the work of individual artists.

Survey Texts

The survey text has been an important tool for gathering and documenting the histories of African American art and artists lost, invalidated, and underappreciated. These treatments of African American art typically begin with the few colonial artists and artisans, black artists of note in antebellum America, and the rise of the black artist in the early 20th century through the era of global identities in the 21st century. James A. Porter was considered the father of African American art history and offered the first broad look at the “Negro” artist in America (see Porter 1992, first published in 1943). The overview approach employed in Lewis 2003 and Bearden and Henderson 1993 revealed a broad swath of black artists, many unknown. Later, Patton 1998 and Powell 2003 applied a social contextual approach to the discussion of the work, demonstrating how black artists and their works chronicled and interpreted the histories of race in America. Bindman and Gates 2014 expands upon the canon established by Porter, Patton, and Powell, and casts the history of art by blacks, largely in America, in terms of its relationship to the history of representing blacks and blackness in the West.

  • Bearden, Romare, and Harry Henderson. A History of African-American Artists: From 1792 to the Present. New York: Pantheon, 1993.

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    Structured around a series of long biographical essays on individual artists that date to the 1980s. A contextual chapter introduces each section. This is a comprehensive view of the canon of African American artists established by Porter and Driskell (see Porter 1992 and Driskell 1976, the latter cited under Exhibition Catalogue Surveys). While more accurate and in-depth research on the individual artists has been conducted in the years since its publication, it remains a useful resource for undergraduates seeking more information on individual artists in the field.

  • Bernier, Celeste-Marie. African American Visual Arts?: From Slavery to the Present. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.

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    Bernier’s approach resides at the intersection of biography and critical analysis. This book is divided into six chapters that take on general topics such as the Harlem Renaissance and abstraction. Subsections are devoted to individual artists. Her discussion is framed by informed critical analysis of the artists’ works and their relationships to issues of race and representation. With limited illustrations, this text is most appropriate for upper-level students or graduate students who are familiar with the material.

  • Bindman, David, and Henry Louis Gates Jr., eds. The Image of the Black in Western Art. Vol. 5, The Twentieth Century, Part 2: The Rise of Black Artists. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2014.

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    Concentrates largely on art by African Americans and covers major trends in the 20th and early 21st centuries in seven lengthy, well-illustrated essays. Although self-representation and identity formation is important binding material among the various essays, the volume treats an array of lesser-known and canonical artists who have multiple relationships to the politics of race. This volume can be used as a stand-alone text on African American art for an undergraduate survey, or for a more in-depth graduate study.

  • Farrington, Lisa E. Creating Their Own Image?: The History of African-American Women Artists. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

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    A survey of the art of African American women. The feminist movement has been critiqued as being geared toward the concerns of white women. By singling out the art of black women, Farrington chronicles the artistry and engages the histories, concerns, and visual strategies employed by women who emerged from a legacy of slavery, racism, and sexism.

  • Lewis, Samella S. African American Art and Artists. 3d. ed., rev. and expanded. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

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    The 2003 publication of African American Art and Artists is the third edition of this survey text, first published in 1978. This was the standard survey of African American art of its time and was aimed toward the general public and undergraduates. The third edition has a new introduction and has been expanded to include later artists. Like other survey texts in this field, it is driven by biographical treatments of artists from the 18th through the 21st centuries.

  • Patton, Sharon F. African-American Art. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

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    Patton’s African American Art is a comprehensive survey text that is not driven by biographical material, but rather by a chronological and topical discussion of the contexts and concerns of African American artists from early slave communities through the 1990s. Patton inserts useful definitions of terms, trends, and ideas that provide background material to the discussion. This text is suited for undergraduate surveys of the field.

  • Porter, James A. Modern Negro Art. Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1992.

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    The classic survey text of the field of African American art. Porter was the founder of the discipline and first published the book in 1943. The 1992 edition adds an introduction by David C. Driskell. Porter writes an analytical treatise that defines the field and lays out many of the issues that remain relevant today. This is an essential work for graduate students or historiographers interested in how the discourse around artists of African descent emerged.

  • Powell, Richard J. Black Art?: A Cultural History. 2d ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 2003.

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    This is the second edition of the book originally entitled Black Art and Culture in the 20th Century, first published in 1997. It is a well-illustrated and condensed analysis of “black art.” Powell distinguishes black art from African American art by including the black diaspora. While he acknowledges the hybridity of black culture, he discusses sites of commonality. Powell also discusses video, film, and performance art. The advanced analytical discussion is appropriate for advanced undergraduates.

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