10 Emerging Black Female Artists to Collect
represented by Black-owned art galleries
by Shantay Robinson
“We polled 10 galleries from around the country to provide you with a list of artists currently blazing a trail among black collectors” – Najee Dorsey
Female artists, regardless of race, are typically overlooked in Western art where the white male dominates. But it must be known that black female artists have been making a valuable imprint on the art world for generations. Black women artists participate in every medium and offer alternatives to the narratives created by the dominant culture. Offering narratives that include black pride during the Harlem Renaissance or black power during the Black Power Movement, black women artists asserted themselves in spaces where they may have been marginalized, but where their voices could not be ignored.
Today black female artists are being centralized as women’s movements force the hegemony of the art world to be more inclusive. Shows like We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women 1965-85 and Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction 1960s to Today prove that Black women have been putting in the work for generations. And while they are only recently being celebrated, their fortitude has influenced a new generation of Black women artists who continue to work in the legacy of artists who have used the canvas to convey alternative accounts of black life.
These contemporary artists who are represented by Black-owned art galleries across the country have continued the work of their predecessors by offering narratives that speak to the black experience, but especially the black female experience.
Lavett Ballard is a visual storyteller. In her latest work she places prints on old fences. The prints are manipulated to create narratives that speak to the black female experience. And the fences are symbolic. They represent the societal barriers that keep people out. While actual fences physically keep people from existing in a space, Ballard recognizes the societal barriers that have kept women and nonwhites from acceptance in our society, as well.
April Bey uses photographic images of some of contemporary culture’s most outspoken feminists in addition to mixed media to create art that speak of the narratives black women are currently creating about their identity. Using images of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Solange, Issa Rae, and Michaela Cole, her Made in Spaceseries employs text to relay feminist themes associated with the aforementioned personalities’ overall ideology. She uses paint and photography but also sews fabric onto the canvas to add dimension to the flat surfaces. Bey creates commentary on contemporary black female rhetoric by also incorporating themes about the natural hair movement and the language that surrounds that discussion.
Lillian Blades uses reflective mirrors, in her most recent work, to create slightly monochromatic glass assemblages. She has refined her assemblages, whereas those of the past were made of found object. Unlike the assemblages of her male counterparts, Blades assemblages utilize small objects placed en masse on the canvas. Blades plays with the eye by color association. With the colors of her objects, she produces color gradients that guide the eye in one direction or another creating movement in her work.
Bisa Butler masterfully renders the images of noted personalities onto quilts by using a range of colors and fabrics while still maintaining the integrity of form. While the facial features are colorful, the rendering of popular personalities like Marvin Gaye and Nina Simone are very recognizable. The patterns used in the quilts are reminiscent of African textiles. And she uses fabrics to create shading that adds depth to the portraits she creates.
Dana King is a sculptor who studies the strength and resilience of black people. Guided by Justice, a site-specific sculpture commissioned by the Equal Justice Initiative, memorializes the 4400 known victims of lynching in the United States. The skill used in rendering the life-like sculptures of three women who walked wherever they needed to go during the Montgomery Bus Boycotts reminds us of the sacrifices made for our rights in this country. The detail rendered in her sculptures reminds us of the humanity of the people that fought for our rights. King’s sculpture of William Byron Rumford depicts the first African American Assemblyman from Northern California who authored the Fair Housing Act that allowed minorities to rent and buy wherever they desired. King’s work is important as it places history in contemporary contexts so that we are reminded of those who fought for our freedom.
Delita Martin centralizes the black female form in a space that has traditionally marginalized them. Overlaying prints onto figures beckons African textiles and speak to the connection of the African Diaspora. Her subjects are unapologetic black women who at times gaze directly at the viewer, or who sometimes don masks that cover their faces. In some other paintings, two women are present and they interact with one another in attempts to show and evoke compassion. Martin’s subjects are inclusive of the variety of black women, as they range in size and shape. This focus on black women urges viewers to see black women for who they really are and to consider their humanity.
Keris Salmon captures the architecture of slavery in her latest works. The nonthreatening images of structures built during that time, are laden with centuries of history that allude to the contribution of the enslaved, as we know slaves built many of these spaces and they still exist today. The contributions of the enslaved are integral to the fabric of the quality of American life. And Salmon captures that notion with thoughtful and well framed shots of the buildings that played such a vital role in the institution of slavery.
Sherry Shine uses quilting to portray both figuration and landscapes. Through the use of fabric and patterning, Shine advances the traditional quilt into her artwork where the black female form, African masks, the beauty of the land are rendered for aesthetic appreciation. The history of quilting reminds us of the function of the quilt as an item to keep us warm by using discarded remnants scraps of materials. She transforms the quilt into an item that begs for its own agency. Her quilts tell their own stories. And the bright colors used in the quilts lend themselves to the African narrative evident throughout her cannon of work.
Beverly Y. Smith creates quilts that are inspired by African and African American textiles. While quilts are functional, as they create warmth for people who use them, Smith’s quilts also function by storytelling. Smith’s narrative can be playful featuring the likenesses of black women donning European royal dress while drinking tea, but they can also reckon with African spiritual practice. Some of Smith’s choices of muted colors is reminiscent of Southern textiles of the enslaved who didn’t have the luxury to choose pretty fabrics for their quilts but used what was available to them and made the best of what they had. The quilts she creates have a worn look to them that reminds of the functional and traditional nature of quilts. In this way, Smith shows a mastery of craft by designing quilts with simple fabrics but intricate thematic construction.
Evita Tezeno creates collages using mixed media that remind one of quilt making as the texture of the figurative forms are palpable. Using brightly colored patterns and cubism to depict the human figure in her paintings she complicates perspectives that help to see the subjects in her artworks in a nuanced way. Tezeno takes ordinary scenes like women standing at a bus stop or a man selling watermelon and adds depth to these experiences with the media she uses. In other works, she accentuates the feminine with bouquets of flowers that seem simple in their rendering but add to the notion of the feminine essence.
Shantay Robinson participated in Burnaway’s Art Writers Mentorship Program, Duke University’s The New New South Editorial Fellowship, and CUE Art Foundation’s Art Critic Mentoring Program. She has written for Burnaway, ArtsATL, ARTS.BLACK, AFROPUNK, Number, Inc. and Washington City Paper. While receiving an MFA in Writing from Savannah College of Art and Design, she served as a docent at the High Museum of Art. She is currently working on a PhD in Writing and Rhetoric at George Mason University.