There are two schools of thought when it comes to this yearly celebration with roots dating back over a hundred years. Some love the sharpened focus and distilled revelry in honor of African American heroes in the frosty month of February. Others (like Morgan Freeman, for example) feel that Black history is American history and, as such, should not be exalted one month out of the year but celebrated every day.
We can see both sides. And, since (art) history still has some catching up to do, we’ll take full advantage of this opportunity to make the world more aware of some fiercely talented cultural heroes who happen to be black.
William H. Johnson (1901-1970)
William H. Johnson was born in South Carolina and educated at the National Academy of Design in New York. Though he spent a good deal of the 20s and 30s in Europe soaking up Post-Impressionism and Expressionism, his move back to Harlem cemented his style. There he immersed himself in the art, fashion, music, and dance scene. His iconic pieces capture the vibe of the time using rich colors and a two-dimensional folk painting style.
Faith Ringgold (b. 1930)
Faith Ringgold is equal parts artist and social activist. As a Harlem high schooler, she’d already decided to pursue a career in the arts. Along the way, she participated heavily in the civil rights movement and used her art to boldly confront racial slurs. She’s also well-known for folding African heritage themes into narrative quilts and for injecting the female perspective into very heated political conversations.
Varnette Honeywood (1950-2010)
Varnette Honeywood grew up in Los Angeles, majored in fine arts at Atlanta’s Spelman College, and went on to earn her master’s degree in education from USC. Out of college she taught art, design, crafts, and cultural programs to minority students under the Joint Educational Project. Later, she focused on her own vibrant paintings depicting African American life—some of which you might remember from the set of The Cosby Show. Though she lost her battle with cancer at 59, her rich, statement pieces live on.
Kerry James Marshall (b. 1955)
As a kid growing up in Watts, Kerry James Marshall was surrounded by civil rights riots, including clashes with police and the Black Panthers. Naturally, he was dramatically influenced by the complex and violent social scene of the day. But he persevered and realized his dream of becoming an artist. He went on to train with Charles White at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles and is now best known for depicting the beauty and complexity of African American life. (Also see Kerry James Marshall’s Untitled 2009 above).
Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)
Jean-Michel Basquiat was born in Brooklyn in 1960. In his twenties, he made a modest name for himself in New York City as a graffiti artist known as “SAMO.” He hustled to sell original art postcards and sweatshirts on the street before collaborating with Andy Warhol and catapulting into icon-status stardom. Unfortunately, his physical demise was just as sharp. He died at 28. But Basquiat’s primitive art style and social-commentary-laced pieces are some of the most powerful, recognizable, and valuable works in the art world.
This is just the beginning… We’ll be celebrating more profound works by African Americans as the month progresses (and, really, until the end of our time). Watch our Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts as the Black History Month celebration continues. Also, get involved and share some of your personal favorites with us.