This Black History Month, Get to Know 7 African American Artists Who Are Building a New Legacy

These contemporary artists are inventing new visual idioms to capture the full spectrum of their lives and communities.

Jeremy Okai Davis, Sepia (Dorothy Dandridge) (2022). Courtesy of Elizabeth Leach Gallery.
Jeremy Okai Davis, Sepia (Dorothy Dandridge) (2022). Courtesy of Elizabeth Leach Gallery.

February welcomes Black History Month, a time to reflect on and celebrate the myriad contributions African Americans have made to society. While historical or famous figures often get the spotlight, it is also an ideal moment to zoom in on the Black artists who are shaking up the world today. Since we here at the Artnet Gallery Network make it our mission to discover emerging talents, in honor of Black History Month, we’ve narrowed the field to seven contemporary African American creators we think everyone should know. 

 

Lavett Ballard, Do As I Do (2022). Courtesy of Long-Sharp Gallery.

Lavett Ballard, Do As I Do (2022). Courtesy of Long-Sharp Gallery.

Artist: Lavett Ballard
Hometown: East Orange, N.J.
Current City: Philadelphia
Medium: Mixed-media sculpture
Gallery: Ballard’s work is currently on view in “My Soul Has Got To Move” at Long-Sharp Gallery, Indianapolis
Why We Like It: The title of Ballard’s exhibition takes its name from a 1978 gospel-funk-soul song, and like its lyrics, the works in the show are about transformation and personal evolution. Her multimedia works are made from collaged photos, oil pastels, and metallic foils applied to sections of wooden fences. These works reimagine the visual narrative of the people—particularly the women—of the African diaspora, bringing together images of warrior queens and hip-hop culture. The fences serve as symbols of social divisions along factors of identity, including race and gender. 

 

February James

Tilton Gallery_February James

Artist: February James

Hometown: Washington, D.C.

Current City: Los Angeles

Medium: Oil pastels, watercolors, and drawings 

Gallery: James currently has work on view in a group exhibition “Portraits” at New York’s Tilton Gallery.

Why We Like It: February James has been drawing since childhood. After moving to Los Angeles in 2007, the artist spent years moonlighting as a makeup artist while keeping up her practice. Inspired by the works of South African artist Marlene Dumas, James began to draw images of the Black figures that filled her imagination. James’s figures can be spectral in appearance, with palls of white covering their faces and dark rings circling their eyes, as though bruised or utterly exhausted. Marked by the aura of memory, James’s soulful works have appeared as cover art for Diplo, Santigold, and Lil Yachty albums.

 

Jeremy Okai Davis

Jeremy Okai Davis, Thelma Study (Thelma Street Johnson) (2020). Courtesy of Elizabeth Leach Gallery.

Jeremy Okai Davis, Thelma Study (Thelma Street Johnson) (2020). Courtesy of Elizabeth Leach Gallery.

Artist: Jeremy Okai Davis
Hometown: Charlotte, N.C.
Current City: Portland, Ore.
Medium: Davis’s figurative paintings are rooted in his interest in the relationship between photography and portraiture.
Gallery: Elizabeth Leach Gallery, Portland
Why We Like It: Jeremy Okai Davis’s canvases are inspired by representations of Black people in vintage media. His paintings have often responded to the standard portrait images Kodak produced into the 1970s. Known as Shirley cards, these images were used to calibrate color film processing and were based on white skin as the norm. In paintings, the artist situates his subjects in the Shirley format but allows for a depth and complexity of color that would not have been possible on film. The artist has also portrayed overlooked Black historical figures, such as the civil-rights activist Pauli Murray and Nellie Hill, an early screen star.

 

Omari Booker

Omari Booker, Black Boy Fly (2020). Courtesy of Urevbu Contemporary.

Omari Booker, Black Boy Fly (2020). Courtesy of Urevbu Contemporary.

Artist: Omari Booker
Hometown: Nashville, Tenn.
Current City: Los Angeles and Nashville
Medium: Booker is best known for his large-scale oil paintings, but his practice occasionally includes elements of charcoal, ink, and found objects.
Gallery: Booker shows with Urevbu Contemporary in Memphis, Tenn.
Why We Like It: Booker paints expressionistic scenes of Black men, women, and children, sometimes incorporating mixed media elements in his energetic tableaux. His process-oriented approach captures the freedom and independence of the creative process.

Vakseen

Vakseen, Free (2021). Courtesy of Abend Gallery.

Vakseen, Free (2021). Courtesy of Abend Gallery.

Artist: Vakseen

Hometown: Born in Athens, Ga., Vakseen grew up in Jacksonville, Fla.

Current Location: Los Angeles

Medium: Vakseen has developed a distinctive collage-influenced style of painting style, which he calls Vanity Pop.

Where to See Work: The artist shows with Denver’s Abend Gallery and in exhibitions throughout Los Angeles.

Why We Like It: Vakseen is a self-taught artist whose style of painting blends together elements of photorealism, Cubism, and fashion editorial images to create abstracted portraits in saturated color. At first glance, his works appear to be collages or mixed-media works, but they are actually hand-painted canvases. His works are a celebration of pop culture and the beauty to be found in daily life.

 

Dominic Chambers

Dominic Chambers, Self-Summoning (shadow work) (2022). Courtesy of Lehmann Maupin.

Dominic Chambers, Self-Summoning (shadow work) (2022). Courtesy of Lehmann Maupin.

Artist: Dominic Chambers

Hometown: St. Louis

Current City: New Haven, Conn.

Medium: Chambers is known for his colorful, dreamlike figurative paintings.

Gallery: His exhibition “Soft Shadows” is currently on view at Lehmann Maupin in New York

Why We Like It: Chambers often paints figures engaged in acts of contemplation or leisure. His works ask contemporary questions about race and identity while engaging in longstanding art-historical and literary concerns. Chambers is also a writer, and many of his works draw from the genre of Magical Realism, as well as the writings of W.E.B. Du Bois. 

 

Kohshin Finley

Kohshin Finley, Kish (2019). Courtesy of Tilton Gallery.

Kohshin Finley, Kish (2019). Courtesy of Tilton Gallery.

Artist: Kohshin Finley

Hometown: Los Angeles

Current City: Los Angeles

Medium: Finley is known for his grisaille portraits.

Gallery: His work can currently be seen in the group exhibition “Portraits” at New York’s Tilton Gallery.

Why We Like It: Finley’s paintings document the lives of his friends and family; he often snaps photographs on an instant camera while out and about, which he then uses as the basis for his oil paintings. The artist works in grisaille, and his paintings can have an effect similar to black-and-white photography, focusing attention on the details of his scenes.  


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