Black Art History and Its Influential Artists


The “Together We Rise” mural on East Broad Street, in Richmond, Va., by Noah Scalin and Alfonso Perez, part of the Mending Walls RVA public art project. Picture Courtesy of The New York Times.

One way history has been preserved throughout the ages is through art. Art, as an outlet and tool for creative expression, is often influenced by the history of the artist. For Black History Month, how does their history influence the creativity of Black artists?

Black History Month originally began as Negro History Week. It was started by the ASNLH, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, known now as the ASALH, the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History. It was chosen as the 2nd week of February to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, according to an article from the History editors, originally published January 14th, 2010, and updated January 31st, 2022. Black History Month was officially recognized by President Gerald Ford in 1976.

According to “African Art History” from Contemporary-African-Art, “A study of African art history indicates the earliest sculpture forms found come from Nigeria and are dated around 500 BC— Foreign colonisation of most countries in sub-Saharan Africa took place from 1840 onwards and different values became omnipresent. A lot of African art was acquired for curious means by travellers, traders and missionaries in the century before and left the continent. Colonialists most often did not give indigenous art the merit and attention it deserved and thereby African art history was not preserved or documented.”

The colonization of Africa also led to a fascination with the “exotic” nature of the continent and its stolen pieces. An example is the birth of Cubism, which was influenced by the abstract form and aesthetics of African masks and sculptures. One such artist inspired by Cubism is none other than Pablo Picasso.

According to the Pablo-Picasso article, “Picasso’s African Influenced Period — 1907-1909,” “During the early 1900s, the aesthetics of traditional African sculpture became a powerful influence among European artists who formed an avant-garde in the development of modern art. In France, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and their School of Paris friends blended the highly stylized treatment of the human figure in African sculptures with painting styles derived from the post-Impressionist works of Edouard Manet, Paul Cézanne, and Paul Gauguin.”

The introduction of these pieces and the African influence shifted European art from the naturalism that had defined it since the Renaissance, to what is now recognized as ‘modernism.’

This inspiration can be seen in famous works such as Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, which was partially inspired by ancient Iberian sculptures stolen from the Louvre.

The Atlantic Slave trade forced 12.5 million Africans to the “New World,” according to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database. Of the millions, 10.7 survived and only about 388,000 made it to North America.

During the time of slavery and the following antebellum period, creativity persisted through mediums such as music, dance, quilting, and even hair. 

In pre-colonial Africa, hair was, and still is, held in great esteem. One could learn a lot about someone just from looking at their hair. As a result of slavery, hair was cut, and Black people were pushed to fit into Eurocentric standards to which they could not completely conform. An example of this pressure to alienate Black hair can be found in the 1789 Tignon Laws in Louisiana. The Tignon laws required Black women to cover their heads, which only resulted in vibrant and exquisite headscarves that are even in use today.

Sonya Clark is a visual artist who uses human hair in her pieces. In one such piece, “Cotton to Hair,” a cotton plant is depicted with a bronze stem, one cotton ball is made of hair. “The materials really matter in this piece,” Sonya says in an audio description of the piece in “Artist Spotlight: Sonya Clark” in the Google Arts and Culture for Black History Month. “It’s made out of human hair, which happens to be my hair, the artist’s hair, an African American woman’s hair. It is both personal and collective. It is my hair, but it stands in for the hair of all the people of African descent who have been forcibly migrated or whose ancestors were forcibly migrated to this part of the world.”

Quilting as a recognized art can be found in Gee’s Bend. The residents of Boykin, Alabama are the descendants of enslaved people who worked on the plantations of Joseph Gee, established in 1816, according to Souls Grown Deep. After the Civil War, they stayed on the land as sharecroppers and were eventually isolated after community members began ferrying to vote as a result of the Civil Rights movement. Subsequently, the ferry was cut off.

However, as a result of this isolation, traditions such as quilting flourished. “These patterns and piecing styles were passed down over generations, surviving slavery, the antebellum South, and Jim Crow. During the Civil Rights movement in 1966, the Freedom Quilting Bee was established as a way for African-American women from Gee’s Bend and nearby Rehoboth to gain economic independence. The Bee cooperative began to sell quilts throughout the U.S., gaining recognition for the free-form, seemingly improvisational designs that had long been the hallmark of local quilt design. As awareness grew, so did acclaim, and the quilts entered the lexicon of homegrown American art,” according to Art.Gov.

The Dance Theater of Harlem was founded in 1969, during the height of the Civil Rights movement, by Arthur Mitchell, the first Black principal dancer in the New York City ballet, and Karel Shook. 

“In that first company we were an extremely diverse group of people. We were Asian, Mexican, black… I think the first white dancer didn’t come until 1970. But it was not about making a ‘black ballet company.’ It was to make people aware of the fact that this beautiful art form actually belongs to and can be done by anyone. Arthur Mitchell created this space for a lot of people who had been told, ‘You can’t do this,’ to give them a chance to do what they dreamed of doing,” said Virginia Johnson, one of the founding members of the dance theater and its artistic director, according to “Our History,” a page on the dance theater’s website.

As for contemporary artists, Zana Masombuka is an example of modern African art. Masombuka was raised in the KwaNdebele region of north-eastern South Africa, according to “Proudly Ndebele: South Africa’s Zana Masombuka showcases her heritage through modern expressions of art,” a February 8th article from CNNStyle. “People thought that the Ndebele culture was a dated culture,” said Masombuka. “Yet it has created a visual language for South Africa that’s recognized by the world.”

Black Art History has persisted throughout the ages, from inspiring art forms to flourishing despite being separated by split histories and a wide ocean.