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4 African American Contemporary Artist to Watch

February 21, 2014

In honor of Black History Month one of our wonderful interns, Sherri Peterson, put together a short list of contemporary artists to check out. In the comments section, feel free to add your own list of artists!

John Bankston

SECCA Blog |John Bankston

John Bankston, “The Letter” Acrylic and Collaged Paper, 2003

First up, John Backston. Interested in the visual language of coloring books, Bankston uses his work as a platform to inform the viewer on issues of race, gender roles and in some cases health issues. Bankston creates visually an imaginary fairy tale world that relates easily with the viewer. 

John Bankston, "Magic Handwashing,"

John Bankston, “Magic Handwashing,”

John Bankston, "The Fabulist’s Colored Life,"

John Bankston, “The Fabulist’s Colored Life,”

Kara Walker

Kara Walker, "Gone, An Historical Romance of a Civil War as it Occurred between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart [detail]," Cut paper original and templates w/signed certificate, 1994

Kara Walker, “Gone, An Historical Romance of a Civil War as it Occurred between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart [detail],” Cut paper original and templates w/signed certificate, 1994

Much like Bankston, the next artist, Kara Walker, also uses illustrations as a formative platform that is easily digested. Walker appropriates characters from the 19th century black stereotypes depicting racial, social, sexually explicit, and in some cases violent narratives about slavery in the south. Using black paper cut outs in an illustrative way, she not only connects to the viewer on many levels but also shocks them. The black silhouettes against the bare white gallery walls is particularly poignant to the reflections about a white dominated society.

Kara Walker, "Untitled," cut paper and adhesive on wall, 1998

Kara Walker, “Untitled,” cut paper and adhesive on wall, 1998

SECCA Blog| Kara Walker

Kara Walker, A Work on Progress, 1998. Cut paper on wall, 69 x 80 in. (175.3 x 203.2 cm). Collection of Judie and Howard Ganek for the Whitney Museum of Art

Rodney McMillian

Rodney McMillian, "Supreme Court," 2000

Rodney McMillian, “Supreme Court,” 2000

Our next artist is from our sister state. I wanted to find someone that was close to home and not from a big city and wanted to show that even someone from a city like Winston-Salem could become an influential artist. Not unlike the two artists mentioned before, McMillians work has an underlining message of race. Primarily an installation artist, McMillian fuses together sculpture, painting and cloth to use light and dark as a way to illustrate the boundaries of economic stature, culture and the human body.

Rodney McMillian, "Untitled," Vinyl and thread, 2010

Rodney McMillian, “Untitled,” Vinyl and thread, 2010

Rodney McMillian, "Untitled (flag)," Mixed media, acrylic on un-stretched canvas, fabric, grommets, 2006-2008

Rodney McMillian, “Untitled (flag),” Mixed media, acrylic on un-stretched canvas, fabric, grommets, 2006-2008

Hank Willis Thomas

Hank Willis Thomas, "Slack Power," (1969/2006), from Unbranded

Hank Willis Thomas, “Slack Power,” (1969/2006), from Unbranded

The last artist is Hank Willis Thomas, a photographer, whose work also relates to race. Thomas engages the viewer through his photos to view how society has objectified the identity of African Americans. Thomas also takes a look back at the history of African American culture using symbols from the past and connecting them with future.

Hank Willis Thomas, "Branded Head, series: Branded," Lambda photograph, 2003

Hank Willis Thomas, “Branded Head, series: Branded,” Lambda photograph, 2003

Hank Willis Thomas, "And One, series: Strange Fruit," digital c-print, 2011.

Hank Willis Thomas, “And One, series: Strange Fruit,” digital c-print, 2011.

Blog post written by: Sherri Peterson

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 18, 2014 12:45 am

    I am really excited by Kara Walker’s silhouette scenes! At first glance her art is fantasical and whimsical like a scene from a children’s book, but looking closely there are serious undertones of the reality of the scene. In doing just this, I believe that Walker makes the viewer reflect on how slavery directly affects racism in the US today. I am reminded that US history is not just a story, but rather a harsh reality that everyone plays a very real role in. What do you all think?

    Another female African American contemporary artist that should definitely be added to the list is photographer Lorna Simpson: http://lsimpsonstudio.com/

    • March 19, 2014 9:05 pm

      Not only that but history is often told by one or two perspectives when ultimately it is a bit more complicated than that.

      The list of artists could go on and on for sure but Lorna Simpson is definitely an amazing artist. Thanks for the suggestion.

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