14 African Americans Who Give Words a Central Place in their Visual Art


Aïssatou Sidimé-BlantonAïssatou Sidimé-Blanton is past curator and a board member of the San Antonio Ethnic Arts Society, a more than 35-year old arts organization that coordinates public art exhibits and raises funds to underwrite artistic training for youth in San Antonio, Texas. Aïssatou and her husband Stewart Blanton are the inspiration and chief underwriters of the Abaraka Awards, grants that SAEAS provides to African American women artist and arts professionals. She was a Gemini Ink board director from 2010-2014.

As we’re celebrating Black History Month from a literary perspective, Gemini Ink and I thought we’d look at the intersections between the visual and literary in some things I love—painting, sculpture, printmaking, photography—visual arts.

In consultation with some great artist friends, I’m offering this starter list of some of my favorites, in alphabetical order:

  1. Faith Ringgold, New Jersey artist, whose story quilts have spawned at least one celebrated book, Tar Beach, and whose initial support helped launch a children’s museum, Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art & Storytelling.

    Faith Ringgold "9/11 Peace Story Quilt"

    Faith Ringgold “9/11 Peace Story Quilt”

  2. Adrian Piper, a philosophy professor, uses drawings, text, video and performance to challenge audiences to examine themselves and their relationship to the world around them. She was awarded the Golden Lion for best artist of the 2015 Venice Biennale.
  3. Kadir Nelson, children’s book illustrator and author, who’s won multiple Coretta Scott King, Caldecott, and other children’s book awards, for works, such as We are the Ship, Heart and Soul, Mighty Casey and A Day at the Beach.
  4. Glenn Ligon broke onto the art scene with paintings loaded with text from one of my favorite authors, Zora Neale Hurston, as well as Walt Whitman, Gertrude Stein, James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison. He also re-interprets Afrocentric coloring books.
  5. Annette Lawrence, a Fort Worth artist who uses numbers, words, and excerpts of writings to create geometric patterns, volume, and space that are both intimately personal and universal.

    Annette Lawrence

    Annette Lawrence, “Installation at UNT on the Square”

  6. Robert Hodge, Houston-based artist who uses Renaissance imagery, Hip Hop and other contemporary artistic references that float through the landscapes of many paintings.
  7. Maren Hassinger, Director of the Rinehart School of Sculpture at Maryland Institute College of Art, uses newspaper in sculptures, installations, and dance costumes that are both a commentary on the news of the day as well as an homage to paper itself.
  8. Nathaniel Donnett (Houston) uses what he calls a Dark Imaginarence, a pan-diasporic artistic approach that reflects the common socio-political and creative practices of Black people worldwide, to examine self and society.
  9. Hank Willis Thomas uses advertising techniques to question socio-economic practices, identity, history and popular culture. In 2015, Thomas cofounded For Freedoms, an artist-run super Pac.
  10. Christopher Blay, a Fort Worth photographer and curator of the Art Corridor Gallery at Tarrant County College Southeast, whose videos employ an alter ego, Frank Artsmarter, to provide biting, visual commentary on the art world.
  11. Michael Ray Charles, University of Houston professor and a former college basketball player in my hometown Lake Charles, LA., came to fame nationwide for crafting the artwork in Spike Lee’s film Bamboozled that draws on historical advertising signage motifs and American minstrel shows/blackface to challenge racial stereotypes.
  12. Ann “Sole Sister” Johnson, Prairie View A&M professor and Houston resident, who gained fame for painting portraits with her feet, refers to herself as an experimental printmaker. She favors leaves, feathers, plastic eyeglass lenses, mirrors—anything but paper. Ann’s Roux Girls collective is shaking up printmaking in Houston with its annual exhibitions.
  13. Vicki Meek, the champion arts advocate, and administrator who built the South Dallas Cultural center into its current artistic glory, often incorporates quotes from historical figures, poets, and herself into artwork that challenge power structures as it relates to equal justice, misogyny, class, and aging.
  14. Deborah Roberts, the Austin painter and Presidential “Point of Light” honoree, attracted attention for her oil paintings of social issues facing African Americans and her laser-sharp political commentary continues in her current monoprints and acrylic works that focus on names and the value we place on names depending on the ethnicity we assign each name.



Comments are closed.