Art is not just something to look at. It tells us stories.
Art from the past, whether abstract or realism, helps to give us insight into people and events we could not witness today. Many creators use art to show us their perspective or even have us take a look at things from an entirely new one.
Black artists have been using their creativity for years upon years to provide a different look at Black people than the one that is portrayed through white American art. These artists have created pieces that force us to see things from the other side of the paintbrush.
Professor Kirsten Strom, GVSU’s co-coordinator of Art History, said some of the most famous Black American artists of this century are Jacob Lawrence, Romare Beardon, Gaith Ringgold, Bettye Saar, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. These artists have provided a representation of Black people that isn’t the stereotypical representation that we see in American art. They offer a representation that is more kind towards Black people.
“Contemporary Black artists take a wide range of approaches,” Strom said. “Some have played an important role in rethinking the way that we look at the past.”
Some Black artists have even ventured into the basements of museums to pull relics from slavery and turn them into new pieces.
“Black artists have been at the forefront of many techniques and styles, including the innovative use of found materials, as in the work of Nick Cave and Mark Bradford,” Strom said.
One artist in particular that utilizes this style is Fred Wilson. Born in the Bronx in 1954, Wilson is an artist that no longer creates his own art, but works with pre-existing pieces to create new ones.
Wilson is well known for a piece he did for a Baltimore history museum. Known as “Mining the Museum,” the creation of this piece is made of pieces from history that relate to slavery or racism.
Sherry Johnson, a member of the English department with a special interest in 19th and 20th Century African-American Literature, said Black authors have also had a major effect on literature, the written form of artwork.
Johnson said a trend among Black literary authors is to look back at Black characters from white stories and give them one of their own.
“There is Black presence in white American literature written by people like Willa Cather and Edgar Allen Poe,” Johnson said. “Every one of their stories has a Black presence. Even though they are not the main character, the Black presence helps them understand the white character.”
One specific example she mentioned involved one of Edgar Allan Poe’s pieces, “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.”
In this instance, Poe’s novel uses a Black presence to help the reader understand a white character better. Johnson said Matt Johnson, a Black author, wrote a 2011 satirical novel in response to Poe’s piece called, “Pym.”
The book is based around a Black background presence found in Poe’s piece. Johnson said the novel, “explores racial politics and qualities that Edgar Allan Poe didn’t specifically state.”
Black artists, whether they be in the physical artistic or literary realm, have paved the way for 21st-century artists today, allowing them to stand amongst others unlike ever before. This doesn’t mean that Black artists haven’t faced structural racism in the art world, nor has it been eliminated. But, many are gaining recognition as some of the important voices for the world we live in today.