Black history month top artists in the United States. Often channeling their familial backgrounds and personal experiences in their work, these creative figures have influenced and inspired much of American art’s evolution.
For most of history, artists of color have not been fully recognized for their talent, achievements, and contributions, both in the United States and abroad. The result has been a popular history of art dominated by white artists. The good news is that contemporary audiences are increasingly interested in diversity in the arts, prompting museums, libraries, and other cultural institutions to shine a spotlight on the work of African American artists.
Groundbreaking African Black History Month Artists American
Joshua Johnson was a portrait painter living and working in 18th and 19th-century Baltimore. While little is known about his background (there are conflicting reports regarding whether or not he was enslaved), over 100 portraits are attributed to the artist. All of these pieces are rendered in a characteristically naive style and most share a distinctive composition: a sitter positioned in a three-quarter view, against a plain backdrop, and among props ranging from fruit and flowers to parasols and riding crops.
Today, Johnson is celebrated as the earliest known African American who worked professionally as an artist, forging a path for numerous creatives to come.
In 1918, a groundbreaking movement emerged in New York City. Known today as the Harlem Renaissance, this “golden age” of art, literature, and music transformed the Harlem neighborhood into a cultural hub for African Americans, with Augusta Savage‘s many contributions at its core.
Savage was a Florida-born sculptor. In 1921, she moved to New York City, where she attended The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, a scholarship-based school. After earning her degree (an entire year early), she was asked by the Harlem Library to create a bust of civil rights activist and writer W. E. B. Du Bois—a piece that put her on the map.
Today, Savage’s role in the Renaissance is mostly attached to teaching and advocacy. In 1935, she co-founded the Harlem Artists Guild, an organization that advised the neighborhood’s African American artists; and, in 1937, she established the Harlem Community Art Center, where she led sculpting classes and helped launch the careers of African American artists, including Jacob Lawrence.
Jacob Lawrence was born in New Jersey in 1918. At just 23 years old, he completed his Migration Series. This colorful collection of paintings tells the story of the Great Migration, a mass exodus of over 6 million African Americans fleeing the segregated South to urbanized areas across the country.
Imagined as avant-garde shapes and rendered in bright tones, this work is celebrated as much for its subject matter as its Harlem-inspired aesthetic. “Lawrence’s work is a landmark in the history of modern art and a key example of the way that history painting was radically reimagined in the modern era,” the Museum of Modern Art explains.
After the success of this 60-panel series, Lawrence continued to artistically document the African American experience in a number of projects. He also taught at several universities and received numerous accolades and awards. In 1941, for example, he became the first African American artist to have work featured in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection, and in 1990, he received the U.S. National Medal of Arts.
Born in Topeka, Kansas, in 1899, Aaron Douglas worked in a glass factory and steel foundry in order to earn money for college. After graduating in 1922 with his degree in fine arts, he taught in the Kansas City, Missouri area before heeding the call of Johnson to head to New York City to be part of the creative scene in Harlem.
Once in New York, Douglas studied painting with German émigré artist Fritz Winold Reiss. He began to study African art as a source of cultural identity while using what he learned about European modernism to create his own visual language. His illustration and murals were centered around social issues—including race and segregation in the U.S.—presented in an abstract, Cubist-deco style featuring semitransparent silhouetted figures that recalled African art.
After spending time in New York and Paris, Douglas accepted a full-time position in the art department at Fisk University in Nashville in 1944 and was there until he retired from teaching in 1966.
New York City would continue to serve as a catalyst for Black artists for decades, with Jean-Michel Basquiat among the Big Apple’s most famous artists—and contemporary art’s most universally recognized figures.
Though he tragically died at just 27 years old, Basquiat’s decade-long career led to a prodigious legacy. Today, he remains both a celebrated creative and a cultural icon, recognized for his approach to themes like slavery and oppression. His works can be found in top museums and galleries around the globe, and they sell for tens of millions of dollars at auction.
Like Lawrence and Basquiat, Kara Walker, a California-born artist, explores issues of race in her work. Rather than opt for a bright color palette, however, Walker often works in monochrome, whether crafting a faux-stone fountain, a sugar sphynx, or, most prominently, her signature silhouettes.
Walker began creating silhouettes in 1994. Since then, she has continued to use these large-scale vignettes to creatively address the prevailing history of racism in the United States. Often, she imagines scenes set in the Antebellum South—a fitting focal point considering the roots of the cut-paper craft. “I had a catharsis looking at early American varieties of silhouette cuttings,” she said. “What I recognize, besides narrative and historicity and racism, was very physical displacement: the paradox of removing a form from a blank surface that in turn creates a black hole.”
In addition to silhouette-making, Walker also dabbles in other mediums, creating everything from paintings and animated works to shadow puppets and “magic-lantern” projections.
In 2017, Nigerian American portrait painter Kehinde Wiley made history when he became the first Black artist to paint an official presidential portrait. Selected by President Barack Obama himself, Wiley was commissioned to complete the painting for the National Portrait Gallery, whose collection of presidential portraits is among its most important holdings.
Since this major project, Wiley has continued to reimagine traditional portraiture. Most recently, he challenged the expectations of equestrian painting with Rumors of War, a monumental sculpture that offers a contemporary response to confederate statues. With this piece, Wiley rethinks the concept of a “hero”—and of American identity.
“Today,” he said during the sculpture’s unveiling in Times Square, “we say yes to something that looks like us. We say yes to inclusivity. We say yes to broader notions of what it means to be an American.”
Brooklyn-based artist Bisa Butler creates contemporary quilts that are life-sized historical portraits of Black people whose stories may have been forgotten or completely overlooked in history. Each colorful picture utilizes fabric like a painter would pigment to produce regal representations of each person.
Butler learned how to sew by watching her mother and grandmother. When she first began creating her quilt art, she depicted her family. Now, she scours public databases for photographs that inspire her.
“My community has been marginalized for hundreds of years,” she writes in her artist statement. “While we have been right beside our white counterparts experiencing and creating history, our contributions and perspectives have been ignored, unrecorded, and lost. It is only a few years ago that it was acknowledged that the White House was built by slaves. Right there in the seat of power of our country African Americans were creating and contributing while their names were lost to history.
“My subjects are African Americans from ordinary walks of life who may have sat for a formal family portrait or may have been documented by a passing photographer,” Butler explains. “Like the builders of the White House, they have no names or captions to tell us who they were.”
For centuries, Black artists have used their crafts to share their lived experiences with the world. Art as self-expression is not a new concept, but how we display it and share it in today’s digital world is. Throughout Black History Month, Google is honoring the creativity and influence of Black artistry by putting it front and center on our products and platforms.
Today, we’re honoring internationally acclaimed poet and civil rights champion Audre Lorde with a slideshow Doodle, illustrated by Los Angeles-based guest artist Monica Ahanonu. The slideshow features a powerful excerpt from Audre Lorde, challenging the misconception that similar identities are a prerequisite to unity. You can also go behind the scenes for a closer look at Audre Lorde’s legacy and explore Monica’s creative process for bringing this inspiring Doodle to life.
We’re also celebrating the Black stories, voices, music and culture that have contributed to creativity and innovation on YouTube and throughout the world. Every Monday, we’ve featured the artwork of a Black artist on the YouTube homepage to celebrate different aspects of Black creativity, including science, arts, motion and history. Click through to see all the artwork for the month of February:
Content collections across Google products
Since 2015, our Black History and Culture hub on Google Arts and Culture presents the collections and stories of more than 80 partners. This year, we celebrate Black creativity on a new BHM chapter page with six new partners: Soul’s Grown Deep Foundation, The Kinsey African American Art & History Collection, Greenwood Art Project, National Jazz Museum in Harlem and the International African American Museum. We’re also adding new original works by Wisconsin poet laureate Dasha Kelly Hamilton and photographer Misan Harriman.
Courtesy of the Kinsey African American Arts & History Collection, a Google Arts & Culture partner.
You’ll also see Black content front and center on Google Play and Google TV. We’re celebrating Black creators, culture and history on Google Play, including a collection of apps by Black innovators and interviews like this one with DeShuna Spencer, founder and CEO of kweliTV. You can also plug into iconic Black films and TV shows as we highlight content collections like “Black Love Stories” and “Revolutionary Black ‘90s Sitcoms” throughout the month on Chromecast with Google TV, or in the Google TV app on Android devices in the United States.
And on February 26, YouTube Originals will celebrate the “Black Renaissance” with a special featuring Black creators, artists, writers, storytellers and history makers who have shaped our nation. The special will feature the voices of President Obama, Michelle Obama, Stacey Abrams, Jason Reynolds, H.E.R., Shantell Martin, Bob the Drag Queen, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and more.
Wallpapers for your browser and phone
Starting today, you can customize the look of your Chrome browser using a new collection of themes. We worked with six contemporary Black artists to turn Chrome into their canvas and each artist has presented their interpretation of the ways people use Chrome, from finding new information to connecting with others. You can also add new wallpapers to your phone. Google Pixel has partnered with Melissa Koby, a Jamaican-born, Florida-based illustrator, on an exclusive collection of Google Pixel phone wallpapers paying tribute to Black people around the world who continue to find joy and beauty despite trials.
Google Pixel has also launched Google Pixel x Black Owned Everything, an exclusive collaboration that spotlights a bespoke collection of products from Black-owned businesses from across the country curated by costume designer Zerina Akers and her company, Black Owned Everything.
Digital art and storytelling to amplify small businesses
To help people more easily discover Black-owned brands and products they’ll love, we’ve partnered with mixed-media artist Amani Lewis to create an original piece of fine art integrating products made and sold from Black-owned businesses—a piece of “shoppable artwork.” Brands featured in the artwork include Jungalow, Blk & Bold, Diarrablu, Lonéz Scents, Coloured Raine and 3rd Eye View. You can explore the painting on Google Shopping and purchase items directly on the merchants’ own sites or through the Shopping tab. We’re also amplifying work by young Black artists such as Briana Peppers, Jade Purple Brown, Pink Lomein and more as they show support for their favorite Black-owned businesses. You can follow along on Twitter to see these specially commissioned works of art as they go live throughout Black History Month, and check out Google for Small Business to learn more about how you can support Black-owned businesses.
Finding community through technology
In addition to showcasing Black artists across our products and platforms, we also want to help raise awareness to some of the challenges Black artists face in their day to day lives. Tune into this featured interview with Jillian Mercado, founder of Black Disabled Creatives, and Brent Lewis, co-founder of Diversify Photo, as they discuss the adversities of Black and disabled Black artists. They also discuss how they used Google tools to build a public database of artists and innovators who are often overlooked because of their identities and lack of access to opportunities. Black artistry continues to influence every aspect of American culture, and we hope you’ll join us in amplifying these powerful voices.