There are so many Black male artists out there doing great things, but often their work goes unnoticed. Whether you’re an aspiring artist yourself or just interested in Black and African American art history, this list is for you.
Here, you’ll find a selection of Black male artists with varying levels of fame and familiarity that span across varying styles of art and mediums. Keep reading to find some new favorites who are making their mark in the art world.
Jean-Michel Basquiat was one of the best Black male painters, born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1960. He quickly rose to fame in the 80s as part of the Neo-Expressionism movement with pieces focused on dichotomies, including:
- Other hot-bed topics
Basquiat also married mixed media, such as oil paint, acrylics, spray paint, markers, and pen ink, to heighten the juxtaposition of his themes.
In 1983, he achieved notoriety with his street art showcasing at the Whitney Biennial. Sadly, Basquait left behind his life’s goal of art when he died of a heroin overdose at 27 years old.
Based in New York City, Kehinde Wiley is an American portrait painter primarily focusing on African Americans. Wiley draws inspiration from the work of Old Masters paintings but combines the traditional with the contemporary, incorporating bright colors and various period styles into his work.
Wiley is probably most notable from his 2017 commission of former President Barack Obama for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, which hangs among the other presidential portraits from George Washington to Donald Trump.
He also paints regular people who have been necessary to him throughout his life and career, including friends, family members, mentors, and others who inspired him through their tenacity and creativity.
Some of Lawrence’s work series include:
- Toussaint L’Ouverture
- Harriet Tubman
- The Harlem Experience
- The Civil Rights Movement
However, his most famous work is his series titled The Migration of the Negro. The large panel series depicts the African American journey from the South in the early 1900s. Lawrence received critical acclaim for this series at only 24 years old.
Charly Palmer is an artist who paints upwards of 50 paintings a year. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia but was born in Fayetteville, Alabama, and raised in the Midwest. Palmer studied the arts at the Chicago American Academy of Art and School of Art Institute.
His art reflects the intricacies and nuances of Blackness in all its forms, from loose sketches and tight lines to blocks of color to mixed media. Palmer uses his art as a means to spark intrigue and answer questions about the Black experience.
At a young age, Watson Mere struggled with verbal communication. As a result of his disability, his teachers introduced him to art, where he learned to express himself through visual means. When he got older, he learned how to create using the digital art platform Microsoft Paint, his medium of choice.
Now, Mere creates masterworks inspired by the African American diaspora, with subject-matter touching on:
Galleries from the United Kingdom to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, have showcased his work, and Mere has received numerous awards, including the Jean-Michel Basquiat Award.
Kerry James Marshall
His work encompasses a range of media, from comics to sculpture, aiming towards a literal, yet not too tangible, Black aesthetic. He rethinks and questions previous Western art styles to integrate historical accuracy that artists had omitted and turned a blind eye toward.
Marshall’s work can be seen as both challenging and healing because it offers viewers something different from what they usually see when looking into modern art pieces.
Chris Ofili is a British artist based in the UK. He was born in Manchester and currently resides in Spain. However, he continuously lives and works in countries across the globe, including Trinidad, London, and Brooklyn.
Ofili has won numerous awards, including the Turner Prize, which he received for his 1998 work No Woman, No Cry, an installation consisting of paintings incorporating elephant dung.
This work brought him international acclaim and controversial attention because it included cut-outs from porn magazines, among other painting elements.
Some critics consider his artworks “punk” or deliberately provocative; others regard them as brilliant works that challenge people’s preconceptions about what constitutes art.
His work reflects his strong commitment to the civil rights movement alongside an interest in African American culture. He balances these commitments with humor by turning power symbols on their head for social change today.
The symbols he uses might seem insignificant and straightforward yet hold importance within Black culture. Or, the symbols can resemble more considerable political powers, such as the American flag, which Hammons redefined and recolored with his work African American Flag.
Mark Bradford is an eclectic artist whose work has been exhibited worldwide. He’s a Black, gay American who creates art reflecting social issues like race and African-American history.
Bradford breathes new life into scraps of paper found in his studio by tearing and layering pieces with bits of wire. His works encourage viewers to reflect and think about their own social issues like race or gender identity and the Black condition. He has broken auction records and earned international renown.
El Anatsui is a Ghanaian sculptor born in 1944 who has transformed the art world with his breathtaking bottle-top installations. These are composed of thousands of pieces sourced from alcohol recycling stations.
Anatsui takes the pieces and intricately sews them together using copper wire. His work aims to connect the ideas of consumption, waste, and the environment together. He has become a world-renowned sensation and continually breaks barriers that many Black artists must face and are categorized into.
Glenn Ligon is a multidisciplinary artist who uses words to speak about racial and sexual identity issues. He makes connections between different sources, constantly drawing attention to his experience as an African American man in America and as a Black, gay artist.
Ligon utilizes mixed media, including neon lighting, film, print, and photography. He also created the term “post-Blackness” with his work. As such, he has cemented himself as one of the most prominent and influential contemporary artists of his time.
Robert Seldon Duncan
Duncan sought inspiration for his paintings from famous American painters like Thomas Cole, and he is considered the first African-American artist to be internationally known for his work. Although he was self-taught, Duncan helped develop the Ohio River Valley style and landscape painting tradition.
Duncan’s legacy as a painter has been overshadowed by his racial identity, with critics believing he used racial metaphors in his artwork. In contrast, others disagree and think you should appreciate his work for the talent alone.
Born in 1937, Bob Thompson was an African-American painter known for mastering figurative painting. He originally went to school on a pre-med track before dropping out to pursue the arts, mainly German expressionism.
The artist’s canvases are known for their bold colors and romanticized subject matter. We can describe his work as synthesizing Baroque masterpieces with Renaissance paintings, combining them in such a way that it incorporates both older styles while still being modern enough not to date quickly.
Joseph Norman is a successful and well-known artist. He creates lithographs, which are drawn on stone with the use of acids to make them rough enough for ink stains that give it an aged appearance similar to old paper money found throughout history artifacts from places like Egypt or China.
His inspiration comes primarily from his family history since his parents were direct descendants of slaves. He also draws inspiration from his life in Chicago and a trip to Costa Rica, where he witnessed how poverty ravaged the different neighborhoods, hence his well-known work, Slum Gardens No. 3.
The pioneering African American painter Barkley Hendricks made essential contributions to the genre of Black portraiture. His work often dealt with the subject of race in America and explored the complexities and contradictions between being Black and living in America. His work made him one of the most influential African-American artists of his generation.
He began his career as a photographer, but he is best known for his life-sized, painted oil portraits of Black Americans that he created during the 1960s and 1970s. Barkley Hendricks’ work has been shown in galleries worldwide, including at venues such as The Whitney Museum of American Art and The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Henry Ossawa Tanner
An African-American artist, Henry Ossawa Tanner, studied painting in France at the Académie Julian, where he received renown from the French artist circles.
Rather than focusing on the blight of the African American people, Tanner focused on biblical themes in his work. He is probably most notable for his works Daniel in the Lions’ Den from 1895 and Resurrection of Lazarus in 1986.
He later returned to the States to study fine arts in Philadelphia at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. However, he later returned to France to make it his permanent home.
Joshua Johnson, America’s earliest-known professional African American artist, was born into slavery around 1763. He commissioned paintings from wealthy families in the Baltimore area with over 80 portraits that have now been attributed to him.
The few details we know about his life are not much, but what we do know is enough for us to be amazed by this story of courage and determination.
Vanley Burke is a social revolutionary, cultural evolutionist, and photographer who has been documenting the Black British diaspora in Britain for over 40 years with his iconic images capturing change.
He makes us question what it means to be “Black” by showing how people from different backgrounds have their own cultures that they bring into situations and celebrate other ones without forgetting where you come from. Thanks to his talent and extensive portfolio, he has been deemed “The Godfather of Black British Photography.”
Born in 1981, Mosquito has had a very successful career with exhibitions and projects running in Italy, America, and the UK since 2016. With a background as an artist, performer, and poet committed to exploring the open-ended potential of language, Mosquito’s work includes performance video music and poetry.
He recently received the Future Generation Art Prize for his exciting work and promise as an emerging young artist in the art world. His most recent exhibition was at the Tate in February 2020, where he explored how sound affects people’s perception of artworks by composing music specifically for each piece on display.
Charles Henry Alston
Charles Henry Alston, born in 1907, had many talents as an artist, including painter, illustrator, sculptor, and muralist. He was active in the Harlem Renaissance period, and his mural still remains emblazoned on the Harlem Hospital.
He was the first African American supervisor for the Work’s Progress Administration’s Federal Arts Project and is most notable for Walking, the oil painting he created in 1958. While abstract, Alston drew inspiration from the women behind the Montgomery bus boycott.
Best Black Male Artists, Final Thoughts
With a range of talent above, hopefully, this list has given you some new insight into the history of Black art and Black male artists.
If you are an aspiring artist yourself, it may have inspired you to create your own work. Whether in painting or photography, sculpting or drawing–the possibilities are endless.