10 Breakthrough Black Men Artists As Polled By Black-Owned Art Galleries
By Shantay Robinson
Black men make a distinct contribution to the artworld as they create art that speaks to a diverse range of issues from community to commerce. Their standpoint comes from a historical experience belonging to a race that has generationally been terrorized and oppressed. For this list of the 10 Breakthrough Black Men Artists, we spoke to professionals at black-owned art galleries to find out which artists they felt were making major gains by their presence in collections, showing in museums and gallery spaces through exhibitions, and raising the bar by the ingenuity of their work. From recommendation of gallerists at 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, we compiled this list.
Alfred Conteh’s Two Fronts, works to convey the warlike atmosphere under which black men, women, and children exist. The likeness to camouflage that overlays the portraits of everyday people is not rendered accidentally. As black life is in a constant struggle to survive, Conteh recognizes the material circumstance under which black people battle economic and psychological injustice. Alfred Conteh’s portraits feature people he has encountered on the street and in whom he recognizes a uniqueness. The realistic portrayals of Conteh’s subjects delineate the circumstances of black life as more than merely theoretical, as scholarship on the condition of the people might suggest; their conditions are existential. While these are no more than portraits of everyday people, Conteh uses technique and style to suggest that there is conversation to be had underlying what the viewer can readily see. As far as portraits go, his execution is masterful, but as far as our perception goes, it is up to the viewer to viscerally experience the exchange.
A military veteran, Marcus Jansen suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, which he was diagnosed with after returning from the Gulf War. His painting helps him sort out the traumas he experienced as a soldier. The scenes he paints are apocalyptic, but he employs bright colors tricking the eye into believing the scenes are not really about death and decay. Jansen’s paintings speak to more than the darkness of war. Because of the color palette employed, we can think of them also as recovery or reclamation of the lives that escape to the aftermath and are able to live again, as he has done. While Jansen uses his art to critique societal issues and politics, the imaginative scenes he paints are not merely didactic and reductive. Instead, they challenge the eye to see past the bright color and meditate infinitely on the meaning of the scenes. Not readily decipherable, Jansen’s paintings offer the viewer reflection on not only external issues of war but on our own thoughts about perhaps our complicity.
Evidently influenced by his Haitian heritage, Stephen Arboite, intends to depict those things about the human anatomy that cannot be seen. Using a stain technique that includes ground coffee, metallic powders, and organic pigment, Arboite portrays the spiritual essence of his subjects. Whereas the spirit is largely manipulated in African spiritual practices, his artworks perform a sort of ritual that allows the aura to be seen up front and center. As the ability to see the inside or the acute periphery of human being that make up the spirit and the soul is quite challenging, Arboite imagines the dynamic energy that the spiritual essence free of embodiment might look like. Taken apart from the physical form, spiritual essence flies free from captivity, but Arboite captures this illusive thing and shapes it on canvas revealing the dynamism of human energy and making a statement that speaks for our genuine and inherent vitality.
Steve Prince’s intricate prints and drawings are steeped in the artist’s faith. His works speak to the human condition in a way that unravels unending with narratives associated with the Bible. Symbolically rendering Biblical stories through his work, Prince portrays black life in relation to religion. Some of his work features married couples who express their love for one another through eye contact, like concerns, or closeness. Reminiscent of 1970s figuration, Prince puts a religious and moral spin on the rather sensual themes of the time. He depicts the everyday in intricate detailed prints and drawings. While Prince takes on worldly issues and employs art historical techniques, his work relies on the black experience and its relationship to a higher power. Through painstaking detail, the artist is able to craft narratives that render meaning on a communal level.
The photomontage technique Najee Dorsey employs in his paintings bring southern roots to life. The heavily contrasted colors pop on the canvas and create a three-dimensional effect. The intentional color choices give the paintings a vibrancy that juxtapose the old-fashioned postures and clothing of his subjects. The dark blue skies that serve as the backdrop of many of his paintings allude to those moments at night when black folks had a bit of freedom and were able to just be in love with themselves and each other. The sweet scenes he creates of lovers in embraces, women foreground a nighttime sky surrounded by sunflowers, or the independence of a man walking his own path are reminiscent of the antebellum south but empowered by the use of photographs to modernize the realm of possibility for his subjects. As the founder and owner of Black Art in America, Dorsey is conscious of his social responsibility and uses his entrepreneurship and platform to encourage the black art community and offer them resources.
Jerry Lynn’s impressionist paintings suggest fantasy on well-composed canvases romanticizing the south with traditional African American themes. While historical memory would suggest mire and darkness, Lynn’s artistic hand imprints his imaginations alluding to beauty and resilience of a people who found beauty in their hardship. Scenes of churches and people in their Sunday best are reminiscent of a tradition of African American painting that relish in the positivity of life in a country that tends to constantly squelch their spirit. These scenes remind us of the beauty within African American traditions and personhood. Even the more contemporary paintings that Lynn creates are laced with reminders of the past while they attend to the issues of the modern day. In addition to Lynn’s attention to traditional narratives, he looks to the future through the eyes of a young black girl with afro puffs; this subject suggests a look to promise for forthcoming days.
Expressionist painter, Jammie Holmes is perceptibly influenced by Jean Michel Basquiat. The crude markings Holmes uses to depict scenes from everyday life, sometimes allude to consumerism and capitalism and remind us of the ways we mark our own bodies for the sake of consumer culture. Seemingly influenced by Pop Art icon Andy Warhol, Holmes uses familiar corporate logos in order to convey the hold consumerism has on us as a people. Holmes uses recurring symbols of popular household items to express a situation that renders black people vulnerable. At other times, he uses dominant world narratives to insert the black body where it otherwise would not be. He attempts to give voice to those who cannot speak for themselves. Based on his experience as a kid in a Louisiana ghetto, he depicts the life that he has known and shares not only the strife of it but also the beauty in it.
Louis Draper was a New York photographer who fell into obscurity after his death in 2002. A native of Richmond, Virginia, Draper moved to New York to capture black life of ordinary people in Harlem. While there is a lot to see in Harlem, including the ever-changing landscape, Draper focused on the people, especially the children free from inhibition and living free from the constraints they might meet when they grow just a bit older. His older subjects look more aware and discerning than the younger ones. He had a 45-year career but was little known outside of the New York art scene. The New York Times ran a story about him in 2013. And in 2014, Candela Books and Gallery in Richmond Virginia held a retrospective of his work. Today, you can find his work in an online archive portal hosted by Virginia Museum of Fine Art in his hometown.
Kevin A. Williams
As the best-selling artist of African American prints, Kevin Williams has a large following. Recognized under the moniker WAK Artistry, Williams caters to a diverse audience of art lovers who have access to his lithographs through prints. Inspired by 1970s blackness, he conveys the sensuality and independence of black people from a time when they were only beginning to have agency for their lives. With a corporate commission from a haircare line and an audience of historically black fraternities and sororities for which he painted artworks, Williams creates paintings that speak to the lived conditions of black people. Creating scenes of strong black women and men in love, he has carved out a unique space and created a niche subject matter than resonates with this his audience. With his work in the collections of notable black celebrities, he has established a place for himself in the upper echelons of the black artistic realm on his own terms.
In the tradition of portraitists Kehinde Wiley, Mickalene Thomas, Amy Sherald, and Jordan Casteel, Jerrell Gibbs makes portraiture his vehicle of choice. His subjects are people with whom he shares a significant relationship unlike the aforementioned artists who choose models to pose for them. Gibbs snaps Polaroids and then uses them to paint his scenes on large canvases. These scenes offer the black bodies in them a sense of humanity, as they are engaging in activities that relinquish them for longtime obligations of being the underclass. In Gibbs’ world they relax, they barbeque, and they swim. Not only does Gibbs paint portraits, his subjects are at leisure within interiors that are oftentimes rendered roughly but are a lot more impressive when they are refined. Though Gibbs is still a student at Maryland Institute of College of Art and will graduate in 2020, he already has an impressive list of mentions in popular art publications.
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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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