10 Breakthrough Women Artists As Polled By Black-Owned Art Galleries
By Shantay Robinson
Black women artists, in recent years, have been receiving more acclaim than they have in the past. But they are still largely unrecognized for their contributions to visual art that spur conversations on justice and equity. This year Black Art in America polled black-owned art galleries to find out who the 10 Breakthrough Black Women artists are. We spoke to Stella Jones Gallery, N’Namdi Contemporary, Walton Gallery, Mariane Ibrahim, E&S Gallery, 10th Street Gallery, Richard Beavers, Zucot Gallery and Black Art in America. This list, of course, doesn’t represent all the talented black women artists doing great things, but what this list does is highlight the artists who have proven to be trailblazing in the collections they have been acquired into, the exhibitions where they have shown, and the ingenuity of their art.
Art quilter extraordinaire, Bisa Butler, doesn’t apply paint to her canvases but the highly contrasted images she creates begs for closer inspection. Butler modernizes historical figures in an effort to bring them back to life. Figures like Josephine Baker, Frederick Douglas and Jackie Robinson have held their space on her canvases imploring the viewer to see them anew. The colors she sews together in order to create subjects of colorful hue are derived from black and white photographs she stylizes. The subjects’ placement on muted or vibrant backdrops help illuminate her subjects’ liveliness while at the same time illustrating their significance. With no paint applied to the canvases Butler creates, she painstakingly makes shadows and light with fabric that give dimension to her subjects. The beauty of her quilts is not solely in the importance of the subject matter in modern times, but the innovation and sense of bravado Butler employs to paint with fabric that has been relegated as woman’s work.
Beneath the paint, textiles, and collaging, Delita Martin features real black women in artworks that celebrate their beauty, strength, pain, and resilience. Inspired by vintage and family photographs, Martin uses visual language to tell oral stories. The narratives told in her paintings render sincere, intimate, and honest stories of women who may not be mentioned in contemporary news or history books, but whom we all are familiar. They are mothers, sisters, aunts, and cousins who work tirelessly to maintain family life and order but who many not receive apt credit for their work. Using traditional African textiles to overlay her images, Martin calls back to the motherland connecting the tradition of black women as the backbone of the community in Africa as well as throughout the Diaspora. While the women depicted in Martin’s artworks may not be overtly celebrated for their contributions to the world, by immortalizing them on canvas, she offers them acclaim.
Fences have been used to keep people in or out, but Lavette Ballard uses fences to insert the narratives of historical images of black people but especially black women into the art historical canon. Taking historical black and white photographs, she applies them onto large and small reclaimed aged wooden fences to create artworks that rebirths these subjects into contemporary times. Working with reclaimed wood, Ballard aesthetically gives a depth to her collages that would not accentuate the combination of black and white photographs and color paint the same way on traditional canvas. Color is overlaid on the black and white photographs, inside her subjects’ forms, and throughout her wooden canvases to give her subjects a second life. These figures might not have been given entrée to the artworld in their time, but Ballard affords them entrance into the lives and the environs of the modern-day.
Monica J. Beasley
Unbeknownst to her viewers, Monica J. Beasley’s artwork is not solely about pretty colors and delicate textures. The femininity inherent in the pastels she uses is supposed to evoke the feelings of femininity and daintiness, but there’s a story behind the obvious that women are supposed to be dainty and delicate. Generally speaking, when have black women had that luxury? American history hasn’t allowed black women luxury to attend to her whims in the lace and satins that are afforded others of her gender. The floral collages Beasley creates might be a reminder to the rest of society that black women are not merely the mules of this world. Like women of any other creed, they deserve to be treated as ladies. It was never her choice whether or not to find employment like her white counterparts, the majority of black women in the United States have always worked. Sometimes she deserves beautiful and delicate reminders of her womanhood. And Beasley offers, if only aesthetically, that reminder.
Genesis Tramaine manipulates the black face to evoke the emotions and encounters of black people. The Urban Expressionist painter uses crude brush strokes to illustrate the psyche in order to understand the inner workings of her black subjects. Inspired by 1980s graffiti and gospel hymns, the narratives she induces in her imagined portraits of black inner life speak to the complexity of black existence. Obviously encouraged by Jean Michel Basquiat, Tramaine takes the manic markings evidenced in the orifices of the face and inserts stories that one may never have the courage to speak. The on goings of the subconscious are evident in the portraits that she paints confessing the intricacy and strife of black animation. The stories she conveys may not be coherent to all, but those living the life understand the difficulty in articulating not only the double consciousness but the triple jeopardy that is the black women’s plight.
Ruby Onyinyechi Amanze
The works on paper by Ruby Onyienyechi Amanze leave space for the imagination to explore infinitely. The figures that Amanze creates seem fractured and inherently do not actually take up much space on the paper. Fragmentary, they float in malleable white space waiting to be discerned by the viewer. On close inspection, the details and texture may be evidence of the complexity of life, perhaps the complexity of black female existence. The figures she evokes in sometimes intimate embraces render the sensuality of life experiences but invoke a disconnect on another level. One the one hand the artworks attempt to take up space and at the same time lack the capacity to do so. The disjointed figures abstractly placed in the parameters of the canvas beg for some harmony. But maybe that should not be expected. Higher concerns of safety and comfort are revealed in the work, begging for conjecture and solace in always aggressive times.
Ann “Sole Sister” Johnson
Inspired by her dreams, Ann Johnson depicts the grief of black people who are not recognized by popular culture for their suffering. Like Sandra Bland, many black women are victimized but are not recognized as victims by long held beliefs that they inherently can endure more pain than their counterparts. Johnson explores these issues within the black community through experimental printmaking. Using mixed media, she brings attention to the traumas of black women while exploring narratives of this black underclass. Making unexpected media like cotton, feathers, or vegetables her canvases, Johnson uses printmaking to apply images to them suggesting the fragility of the subjects she portrays. The tenuousness of the canvases she works with speak to the endurance of a people, tolerable enough to be taken to the brink of self-destruction but unable to withstand constant oppression. The fragility of her canvases is evidence of the foundation that her subjects stand upon.
Celebrating beauty and grace, Tracy Murrell takes silhouettes of women and applies them to patterned paper in order to create harmony essential to exist in this world as a woman of color. Inspired by the poise and elegance of women, Murrell repeats poses to familiarize the viewer with her subjects and then surprises them with the patterns she combines to create coherence. The lack of features on her subjects allow the silhouettes to be available to any woman, lending themselves to a multitude. In response, these silhouettes inspire meditation, permitting the viewer reflection. Modest in posture, the artworks offer an alternative to the stereotypical views of women of color as loud and hypersexual. The silhouettes atop the decorative backdrops disrupt the contemplative stances of her subjects but renders them harmonious with the busyness. Murrell offers an alternative to typical interpretations that depict women of color as anything other than contemplative, secure, and beautiful.
Uruba F. Slaughter
When figures aren’t enough and there are no words to heal the suffering, abstraction is used in its place. Uruba Slaughter surpassed an aneurysm through abstract painting. Her custom textures depict the suffering of one in pain but who is willing to overcome humanity’s suffering in order to see beauty. The colorful and contrasted canvases she creates depict the darkness to light the artist has endured. And the texture tells of the struggle it took to get there. Her canvases scream for relief from the pains of ordinary life as well of those of extreme circumstances. The simplicity and complexity on the canvases she creates speak to life as well as death. The morbid and the light. The pain and beauty. When figures aren’t enough to depict the circumstances of life, colors placed with texture on a canvas might be the only thing left to tell of the fortitude it takes to overcome. Slaughter’s canvases convince of the painstaking care the artist can take to deliver that message.
A quilt artist, Sherry Shine invokes the traditions of African textile creations to speak to particular African American women’s experiences. The bright colors she uses to convey the narratives of black women tell of the intimate relationships black women create in an oppressive system of domination. Her subjects may be imagined, but the stories of sisterhood and love depicted in her quilts bear the real lives of women who aside from enduring strife take moments to live. Shine constructs images who bond platonically and in romantic love. Even when black women aren’t present in her work, their traces are left in the garments of a clothesline or the rhythmic color palettes they inspire. Without using paint to depict the colorful interiors of black women, Shine utilizes the quilting tradition to portray the humanity of black life and love. Shine’s quilts are testament to the beauty and power of the black feminine mystique.
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Shantay Robinson, BAIA resident scholar has participated in Burnaway’s Art Writers Mentorship Program, Duke University’s The New New South Editorial Fellowship, and CUE Art Foundation’s Art Critic Mentoring Program. She has written for Burnaway, ArtsATL, ARTS.BLACK, AFROPUNK, Number, Inc. and Washington City Paper. While receiving an MFA in Writing from Savannah College of Art and Design, she served as a docent at the High Museum of Art. She is currently working on a PhD in Writing and Rhetoric at George Mason University.
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