Influential black artists that confront race and systemic oppression within their work

Mhairi Mann

5 June 2020

As anti-racism demonstrations continue to take place around the world in support of theBlack Lives Mattermovement, Luxury London celebrates the revolutionary artists that have challenged racial inequality and the political status quo by placing black pride at the forefront of their work

“Artists are here to disturb the peace" – author and activist James Baldwin

5 June 2020 | Mhairi Mann

Emory Douglas

Emory Douglas was Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party from the late 1960s until the late '70s. He designed and illustrated the Black Panther Party’s newspapers, flyers and posters, effectively creating visual branding for the civil rights movement. Douglas’ work was not shown in galleries but in the ghetto – on walls, on busses, in shop windows and telephone booths. His graphic artwork empowered black culture and provided hope where there was none, through slogans including ‘Seize the Time’ and ‘All Power to the People’. A lifelong activist, Douglas continues to draw attention to important issues including the HIV crisis, black-on-black crime and the industrial prison complex.

We Shall Survive Without a Doubt, 1971, courtesy of Emory Douglas / Art Resource, NY and the Tate

Barkley L. Hendricks

Philadelphia-born Barkley L. Hendricks was one of the most influential artists to emerge during the late 20th century. Hendricks attended Yale before touring Europe, where he was troubled by the lack of diversity found within art museums. This inspired his striking, life-size portraits of everyday black Americans, which gave representation to a repressed community. He revolutionised portraiture, portraying his subjects with dignity, style and swagger, while also depicting their vulnerability. One of his most famous works, Superman Never Saved Any Black People, takes its cue from a remark by Bobby Seale, a founder of the Black Panther Party.

Icon for My Man Superman (Superman Never Saved Any Black People – Bobby Seale), 1969, Barkley L. Hendricks, courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York and the Tate

Kerry James Marshall

Kerry James Marshall grew up around the corner from the Black Panther Party headquarters in Los Angeles and lived through the 1965 Watts Riot. His figurative work challenges the whitewashing of art history, juxtaposing quotidian African-American life with historic references, high-class leisure activities and motifs from Western art history. Marshall set a record at auction in 2018 for the most expensive work by a living black artist, when his 1997 painting Past Times sold for $21.1m.

Past Times, 1997, Kerry James Marshall, courtesy of Sotheby's

Jae Jarrell

Jae Jarrell is a female artist and fashion designer who co-founded the 1968 AfriCOBRA art movement, along with her husband, Wadsworth A. Jarrell. The collective, which stood for African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists, rebuffed political revolt, instead seeking to shape and empower black communities through artistic expression. Jarrell is most famous for her politically-charged suits, including the renowned 1970 Revolutionary Suit, which had an ammunition belt sewn into the jacket. The tweed two-piece notably had to have an A-line skirt so that "women could march."

Urban Wall Suit, 1969, Jae Jarrell, courtesy of Brooklyn Museum 

Wadsworth A. Jarrell

Following on from his wife, Wadsworth A. Jarrell was also a prominent painter and sculptor, whose work continues to resonate today. His bright, pop-fuelled portraiture depicts notable figureheads of the civil rights movement including Malcolm X and Angela Davis. Black Prince, his 1971 tribute to civil rights activist Malcolm X, echoes the quote: "I believe in anything necessary to correct unjust conditions, political, economic, social, physical. Anything necessary as long as it gets results.”

Revolutionary, 1972, Wadsworth Jarrell, courtesy of Wadsworth Jarrell and the Tate

Cassi Namoda

Cassi Namoda's figurative work is a confluence of sorrow and beauty, which draws on family life in the Mozambique capital of Maputo, where she was born, as well as traditional African traditions and the work of Kenyan theologian John Mbiti. Her first European solo exhibition, Little is Enough for Those in Love, was presented at the Pippy Houldsworth Gallery earlier this year, and she also painted a cover image for Vogue Italia’s photography-free January 2020 issue. She currently splits her time between New York and Los Angeles.

Family Portrait in Gurué, Cassi Namoda, 2019, courtesy of Cassi Namoda

Kehinde Wiley

Kehinde Wiley is best known for his 2018 painting of Barack Obama for the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, a commission he was awarded after meeting with the president at the White House and discussing representation within his work. Wiley predominantly paints black subjects set against vibrantly decorative, William Morris-inspired backdrops. It was therefore apt that his first UK solo exhibition was held earlier this year at the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow. His work explores themes of confinement, class and black culture within American media.

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