BAIA’s 10 Most Transformational Artists of the Year

BAIA’s 10 Most Transformational Artists of the Year

by Shantay Robinson
Black art is representative of the experiences of Black people, though not all Black artists speak to the Black experience. There have been concerted movements of Black art in the past, such as the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement, which proved the significance of Black art in the lives of Black people. But, in the contemporary moment, Black art exists as an entity within the larger art world, exposing the greater population to ideas that concern Black people.

Black artists have been creating art in the tradition of negritude that allows for a contribution of the Black voice in the dominant culture internationally. These voices that speak for the Black experience today exists alongside the voices of artists from varied cultures. Without the Black voice, the art world would lack dimension and so would our diasporic cultures. We should be thankful to the artists who find a home with Black Art in America and who our readers have been following as their careers took off and they gained impressive levels of success.

A few years ago, Black Art in America surveyed Black art galleries around the country to find out who were the hot, emerging and breakthrough artists. Our sources didn’t lie. Many of the artists featured in our list of Emerging Black Artists in 2018 and Breakthrough artists in 2020 are on the fast track to artworld stardom. They are claiming fellowships, exhibiting in world-renowned institutions, acquiring high-profile commissions, and creating art that speaks to and about Black culture. These artists have continued to break through to the mainstream in a way that allows the Black voice to make statements that decries the status quo and highlights the importance, not only of the art they make, but of their places in the world as Black artists. Black art is important because it allows us to see how Black people see themselves and this world. Without these artists, we would be without very important perspectives that concern our well-being as Black people.

Bisa Butler, who was on BAIA’s list in 2018 and 2020, continues to command deserving attention. Her portrait quilts have featured the personages of some known and unknown historical figures while at the same time turning quilting into high art. As the winner of the 2022 Gordon Parks Foundation Fellowship, she is set to have a solo exhibition on site at the foundation in Pleasantville, New York this winter. Her first solo museum exhibition, Bisa Butler: Portraits, was at The Art Institute of Chicago in 2020 - 2021. Butler’s work currently hangs in several major institutions, including Los Angeles County Museum of Art, National Museum of African American History and Culture, Perez Art Museum Miami, The Newark Museum of Art, and Hunter Museum of American Art.

Bisa Butler | "Forever" (2020) | Cotton, silk, wool, and velvet quilted and appliquéd

Jerrell Gibbs who appeared on the BAIA list in 2020, was experiencing success before he finished his MFA program at Maryland Institute of Contemporary Art. He was discovered by his current art dealer, Mariane Ibrahim who mounted his first solo exhibition at her eponymous gallery in 2021. Gibbs painted the portrait of the late United States Representative and civil rights advocate, Elijah Cummings. The Cummings portrait was exhibited at Baltimore Art Museum in 2022. Gibb’s stunning portrait has garnered him a lot of attention with the press, including coverage in The New York Times and The Washington Post. In the past year, Gibbs was also in the highly talked about exhibition, Black American Portraits at Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Gibbs’ artwork is also held in permanent collections internationally at X Museum in Beijing and CC Foundation in Shanghai.

Jerrell Gibbs | “I Only Have A Minute, 60 Seconds In It… Portrait of the Honorable Elijah Cummings,” (2021)

Delita Martin made BAIA’s list in both 2018 and 2020 as an artist with Baltimore-based Galerie Myrtis. The master printer has been exhibited nationally at the Crystal Bridges Museum in Arkansas and had her first solo museum exhibition, Delita Martin: Calling Down the Spirits, at National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC. Filmmaker, Ava DuVernay, commissioned Martin to create a mural for DuVernay’s Law Enforcement Accountability Project of Yvette Smith and other women who lost their lives by the hands of police officers titled Blue is the Color We See Before We Die. Along with other artists represented by Galerie Myrtis, Martin’s work was exhibited at the Venice Biennale exhibition, The Afro-Futurist Manifesto: Blackness Reimagined.


Delita Martin | New Beginnings 

Marcus Jansen was featured in BAIA’s Breakthrough artists list in 2020. The Bronx native has been shown nationally at The University of Michigan Museum of Art, The Smithsonian, and The Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art.  He’s had solo exhibitions at La Triennale di Milano Museum and Museum Zitadelle Berlin. Jansen’s second solo exhibition, Victims and Victors showed in Winter 2022 in London. Jansen, who suffers from PTSD after having fought in the Gulf War, uses art as a language to explore what he’s been through. Richard Beavers Gallery presented Jansen’s The Aesthetics of Displacement at Future Fair New York in 2021. In 2023, Jansen will exhibit Marcus Jansen / In the Land of Silhouettes in Shanghai. His work is in the collections of the Bronx Museum of the Arts, The Rollins Museum of Art, Foundation Calosa in Mexico, The University of Michigan Museum of Art, The New Britain Museum of American Art, and several other sites.


Marcus Jansen | Confined Without a Soul (2021)

Lavett Ballard, who appeared on the Emerging artists and Breakthrough artists lists, has been quite busy despite the pandemic. In 2021, she had solo shows at both Rush Arts Philadelphia and Community Folk Art Center in Syracuse. In 2020, she had three solo shows at Long Sharp Gallery in Indianapolis, Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, and Rutgers University in New Jersey. Ballard’s art graced the cover of Time Magazine’s special Woman of the Year double edition released in March 2020. And her art is in the collections of the African American Museum of Philadelphia, the Colored Girls Museum, and the Petrucci Family Foundation. Not only do her artistic techniques offer glimpses into the psyches of Black women, her use of wooden fences as canvases in her artmaking symbolize how racial and gender identities are used to keep people in or out, allowing the viewer insight into the experiences of Black people.


Lavett Ballard | Unbothered (2021)

Alfred Conteh, a Breakthrough artist in 2020, was poised to show in five exhibitions that year but, because of the pandemic, three of the shows were virtual, including his solo exhibition at Kavi Gupta. Though the exhibitions could be viewed virtually, Conteh’s are works that need to be appreciated in person. In 2022, Conteh got another shot at a solo exhibition at Kavi Gupta with his exhibition It Is What It Is. His large scaled detailed portraits of Black people show us the resilience of a people who have been left to ruin like weathered paint. Though Conteh hasn’t had many national solo shows yet, he is very present in important national group shows, including the Smithsonian’s Men of Change exhibition. Some of Conteh’s artworks are 10 feet tall, and, at this epic scale, his paintings echo the urgency of the message he wishes to convey through his artworks.

Alfred Conteh | "Preme" (2020) | Acrylic and Atomized Brass Dust on Canvas 

Keris Salmon was featured on BAIA’s Emerging artists list in 2018. Since, she’s had several career highlights including being a Visiting Artist at Boston University in Fall 2020 and a Visiting Artist at MassArt Summer 2020. As a multimedia artist, Salmon focuses her work on family histories and their links to the present. She’s been in several group exhibitions at Arnika Dawkins Gallery in Atlanta, Josee Bienvenu Galley in New York City, and The Jack Fischer Gallery in San Francisco.


Keris Salmon | "I CANNOT"

Charly Palmer, who was on the Emerging Artists list in 2018, has had several impressive accomplishments in recent years. He illustrated the cover of John Legend’s Grammy Award-winning album, Bigger Love, the cover of George M. Johnson’s novel All Boys Aren’t Blue, and Time Magazine’s July 2020 cover for the “America Must Change” issue. Palmer’s ornately adorned portraits depicting Black figures with bouquets of flowers is a style for which he is gaining a lot of attention. His work is in the collections of JP Morgan Chase, Miller Brewing Company, and the Coca Cola Company.


Charly Palmer | "In Her Eyes" (2020)

ann ‘Sole Sister’ johnson is a printmaker who has strong roots in her Texas community. Since appearing on the Breakthrough artists list in 2020, she’s been in several group exhibitions inside and outside Texas including exhibitions at Contemporary Black Matriarchal Lineage in Printmaking in Harlem and High Point Center for Printmaking in Minneapolis. She’s been featured in Hand Papermaking Magazine and Mid Atlantic Printmakers Association Journal. As a professor at Prairie View A&M University, she’s been awarded Teacher of the Year three times, including an award in 2022.

ann 'Sole Sister' johnson 

Wesley Clark is a multidisciplinary artist in the Washington DC area, who is adorning public spaces with sculptures. Clark appeared on BAIA’s Emerging artists list in 2018, and since he’s gone on to erect public sculptures at Boone Elementary School and Calvin Coolidge High School in DC and at the intersection of North Avenue and Maryland Avenue in Baltimore. In 2021, Clark appeared in group exhibitions, including Repercussions: Redefining the Black Aesthetic in Baltimore and Renaissance: The Contemporary Expression of the Ancestral Spirit in Nashville. And in 2021, he received a Phillips Collection Centennial Commission that allowed him to create a site-specific installation for the museum. His 2022 solo exhibition Are We There Yet at Pyramid Atlantic Art Center received a review from The Washington Post.

Wesley Clark | "My Big Black America," (2015)


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