Monday, October 11, 2010

It all began at the Sugar Shack

Ravena got me thinking about race and art the other day when she mentioned wanting at least some art in her home by African American artists. One piece, in particular, she had had her eye on for a while was Sugar Shack by Ernie Barnes.

Sugar Shack Ernie Barnes

I was unfamiliar with this particular piece, so I felt compelled to hit up Google and see what I could find out. Turns out his style is neo-mannerist, a term I'd never heard of until Google further enlightened me. The elongated limbs and fluidity in the work reminded me of the illustration on the cover of the children's book, Salt In His Shoes, and it seems the illustrator, Kadir Nelson (Abikanile's Prayer below), is also a student of the same movement.

springboard by ernie barnes


I hadn't really ever given much thought to the artists I like and what their race is, so it was definitely a challenge to search for new artists with race/ethnicity as my first criteria. I can't decide if not factoring this in is a luxury just given my own race or ignorance on my part.

Anyway, back to the fact that Google was not helpful. Typing in "African American art", "art by African Americans", "black art", etc. proved extremely limiting. I am very much a believer in that your history, culture and life shape your art. However, I refused to believe that art by an entire population of people falls into a few narrow categories*.

I should admit now that my second criteria was that the art also had to appeal to me. Would I put it on my wall or in my house? You can rest assured that I would display anything I've included here.

Right when I was about to get frustrated with Google I came across the work of Jacob Lawrence and mixed media artists Romare Bearden and Radcliffe Bailey (respectively below).

jacob_lawrence_the migration of the negro

The calabash Romare Bearden


If you remember all my yammering about Lisa Congdon, you'll know I'm a big fan of collage pieces.

I was still struggling though. I wanted cutting edge, even more contemporary, so I headed to Etsy to see what they had to offer up. If I thought Google was bad, Etsy plum near terrified me. Such.horrible.pieces. The great thing about Etsy is that magnificent might just be a click away. Patience is how I stumbled on Atlanta artist Shadra Strickland.

bird's rooftop shadra strickland

My luck held out, and I discovered these beautiful pieces by Tabitha Bianca Brown.

Honestly, my real break came when I discovered the article, Race issue a two-edged sword for black contemporary artists, by Blake Gopnik. While these pieces aren't really ownable unless you happen to be seriously wealthy or a museum, I wanted to hop on my chair and shout "yes! yes!" when I saw them.

Glenn Ligon (unknown, Excerpt, No Room #36)
glenn ligon

excerpt glenn ligon

No Room #36 Glenn Ligon

Kara Walker
Kara Walker



exodus of confederates from atlanta kara walker

Lorna Simpson
lorna simpson

Wigs lorna simpson

Yinka Shonibare

a flying maching for every man, woman and child yinka shonibare

Each of these artists deserves their own post and discussion of how brilliant they are, but for now, I think I'll just stop here and see where the discussion goes.

**All images pulled from corresponding artist's website.**

*I need to debate this out with my group of folks because I kind of want to explore this a bit further.


  1. Thank you! I've been trying to find black art for years that I would actually want to buy that symbolizes where we've been and where we're going and its hard to harness that in a google search. Kadir Nelson and Ernie Barnes had been the furthest reaches of what I had found.

  2. Thanks for finding me! You may also want to check out Greg Christie, Ashley Bryan, Willie Birch, Elizabeth Catlett, Henry O. Tanner, and Aaron Douglass... Good luck in your continued search for Af. American art that you love~

  3. Nice blog. Keep up the good work.

  4. Thanks for the added recs, Shadrieka. Love it.

  5. The first couple paintings remind me of JJ's art on "Good Times"... lol.

    I think AA art is pretty cool, but I tend to like art that consists of flowers, buildings, wine, etc. Like, non-living things. I don't know why. I'm just weird.

    Hope that you find something nice!

  6. @Randi Actually, it is the art from JJ's room from Good Times. Ernie Barnes' Sugar Shack was created as a cover for Marvin Gaye, but was also used on the show, which is where its popularity grew.