Robin Hamilton: Black American Art Movements and Their Legacy

Written by Robin N. Hamilton

Many cultural movements have moulded and impacted the art world, and African American art movements have greatly impacted how art is expressed in America. In addition to highlighting the rich tradition and diversity of African American art, these movements give Black artists a platform to address problems of race, identity, and social justice.

The contributions of Black American artists to diverse creative movements throughout history must be honoured and recognized. The Black Arts Movement, the AfriCOBRA movement, and current African American art movements will all be discussed in depth in this article. Each movement’s important leaders, creative movements, and topics will be examined, as well as each movement’s influence on the modern art world.

© Elizabeth Catlett

Table of Contents

© Faith Ringgold
The Black Arts Movement

The Black Arts Movement (BAM) was founded in the 1960s as a cultural and political reaction to the racism and structural oppression that African Americans endured. Black artists and authors were encouraged to produce works that reflected their experiences and embraced their history as part of this movement, which had its roots in both the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement.

Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, and Gwendolyn Brooks were significant leaders in the Black Arts Movement and utilized their literature to address issues like Black identity, pride, and emancipation. Elizabeth Catlett, Emory Douglas, and Faith Ringgold, among others, were visual artists who contributed significantly to the movement by utilizing their work to advance social justice and spur political action.

The Black Arts Movement employed various creative techniques, from realism to abstraction, frequently featuring African motifs and cultural symbols. BAM works often featured the concepts of Black nationalism, self-determination, and cultural heritage. The Black Arts Movement greatly contributed to American culture by promoting Black Americans’ feelings of pride and identity and encouraging other oppressed groups to pursue their creative and cultural endeavours. Its influence may be observed in Black artists’ ongoing attempts to oppose the prevailing narratives and stereotypes that have traditionally silenced their voices and encourage greater representation and inclusion in the arts.

© Jeff Donaldson
AfriCOBRA Movement

Following the tenets of the Black Arts Movement, the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists (AfriCOBRA) was a Black American art movement that appeared in Chicago in the 1960s. The organization wanted to use art to strengthen Black communities and to depict African American culture and experience in a positive and uplifting way.

Jeff Donaldson, Barbara Jones-Hogu, and Wadsworth Jarrell were significant leaders in the AfriCOBRA movement and connected to the Organization of African American Culture (OBAC). They greatly influenced how AfriCOBRA developed its aesthetic and philosophical stance.

Bright colours, vivid patterns, and graphic imagery were hallmarks of AfriCOBRA artworks. In their works, the painters frequently used African themes, cultural icons, and allusions to the struggle for Black independence. In addition to challenging the Eurocentric views of beauty and art that predominated the mainstream art world, the movement highlighted the significance of producing work that was accessible to and relevant to African communities.

It is possible to discern AfriCOBRA’s effect on other African American artists and art movements and how it helped create a distinctive Black-American aesthetic. The Black Power movement benefited greatly from the contributions made by AfriCOBRA artists, who produced pieces that embraced Black identity and culture while advancing social justice.

The legacy of AfriCOBRA is still evident today in the Black artists’ ongoing attempts to produce works that celebrate and affirm Black culture and identity as well as the expanding understanding of the value of varied representation in the arts. The movement’s focus on empowering communities via the arts has also impacted the creation of arts education initiatives and community-based art projects.

© Kehinde Wiley
Contemporary Black American Art

The wide and dynamic body of work created by African American artists in the present is called contemporary Black-American art. This category includes many creative movements and trends, each with a distinctive aesthetic and thematic emphasis.

The Black Lives Matter Art Movement is one such movement that was born out of the continuous fight for racial justice and equality in America. Artists in this movement include Titus Kaphar, Carrie Mae Weems, and Hank Willis Thomas, who produce works that speak to social justice, institutional racism, and police brutality concerns.

The Neo-Expressionist movement, including artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kehinde Wiley, and Kerry James Marshall, is another significant trend. These painters explore topics like identity, history, and power in their paintings by using vivid colours, expressive brushwork, and a variety of cultural allusions.

In addition to celebrating the beauty and uniqueness of Black bodies, these modern African American artists also explore problems of representation, identity, and power relations in their figurative paintings. These artists include Amy Sherald, Jordan Casteel, and Mickalene Thomas.

Contemporary Black American art has a wide-ranging influence and impact. It keeps giving Black artists a forum to share their experiences, viewpoints, and cultural heritage. Moreover, these pieces act as a way to inform and involve the general public in discussions on racial, ethnic, and social justice problems. In recent years, there has been a rising acknowledgement and appreciation of the value of varied representation in the arts. African American artists have played a major part in advocating more inclusion and representation in the art world. With their creative output, they continue to influence American culture by posing objections to prevailing narratives and stereotypes and advocating for a more inclusive and egalitarian society.

© Jordan Casteel
Intersectionality and Black American Art

“Intersectionality” describes how social identities like race, gender, and class interact and affect a person’s chances and experiences. African American artists have utilized their art to investigate how these identities cross and interact for as long as they have been aware of the significance of addressing intersectionality concerns in their work.

Many social movements, including the feminist, LGBTQ+, and disability rights movements, have influenced African American art movements. For instance, the feminist movement significantly impacted the Black Arts Movement in the 1960s and 1970s, and many Black women artists utilized their work to address racial and gender concerns.

Modern African American artists continue to confront themes of intersectionality in their work. Kara Walker is one illustration of someone who utilizes art to examine racial, gender, and power-related concerns. Her massive silhouettes, which frequently feature imagery of slavery, brutality, and sexuality, portray historical events in America and force viewers to face painful facts about the past and the present.

Another illustration is Mickalene Thomas, whose artwork explores gender, sexuality, identity difficulties, and the beauty and variety of Black bodies. Her collages and mixed-media pieces frequently include pictures of Black women, questioning stereotypes of femininity and beauty while highlighting the tenacity and resiliency of Black women.

Inequality in class and income has also been discussed among African American artists. For instance, in the 1960s and 1970s, the AfriCOBRA movement produced artwork that embraced African culture and identity while advocating for social justice to strengthen Black communities.

African American art movements have been crucial in addressing intersectionality concerns and advocating for increased social justice and equality. African American artists continue to question prevailing myths and prejudices via their works and advocate for a more inclusive and egalitarian society.

© Barbara Jones-Hogu

The Black Arts Movement, the AfriCOBRA movement, and modern Black American art are just a few of the art movements to which African American artists have made major contributions. We have examined each movement’s historical background, significant individuals, creative movements, themes, consequences, and legacies.

African American artists have notably contributed to defining American culture and advancing social justice and equity. Thus it is crucial to continue recognizing and supporting them and their work. African American artists have given underrepresented people a loud voice, questioned prevailing narratives, and emphasized intersectionality by tackling problems of race, gender, class, and other social identities in their work.

We must keep supporting and elevating African American artists as we advance and make venues for their voices to be heard. Only by doing this will we be able to truly comprehend the range and depth of American art and culture and advance efforts to create a more just and equitable society. African American art movements have left a lasting monument to the ability of art to provoke, uplift, and transform; we must continue to preserve and celebrate this heritage for future generations.

Robin Hamilton is an Emmy-winning TV host and founder of the ARound Robin Production Company. Her work promotes transformation through media and policy. She has created videos for non-profits and produced four documentaries, including award-winning This Little Light of Mine and Dignity and Defiance. Hamilton has two master’s degrees and has worked for network affiliates in several states.


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