Celebrating black art connecting culture and heritage

Black History Month may be over, but we want to celebrate some black artists who are using art as a way to connect to their heritage.

Connecting to culture can be crucial for helping to maintain a sense of community.

Representing complex history through art is also a significant act for those whose own history is difficult to trace.

From collaborative projects to work that revolves around symbols, WorldRemit have compiled a list of some of their favourite artists for you to explore and be inspired by.

African Diaspora Art in the 21st Century

This collaborative project by King’s College London and Iniva (Institute of International Visual Arts), included a series of video interviews with contemporary British artists who have links to the African diaspora.

The aim of the project was to create a better understanding and appreciation of art in the diaspora, and how artists are influenced by their heritage and histories. The artists featured work across a multitude of disciplinary practices, from sculpture to painting to video.

The interviews were filmed in 2014, and featured Larry Achiampong, whose work focuses on visual and aural archives and explores class, cultural and digital identities; Nicola Frimpong, exploring race, sex and violence; Cedar Lewisohn, a curator, writer, and artist working around street art; Thomas J Price, engaging with representation and perception; and Barbara Walker, whose paintings and drawings invite conversation about the body politic.

David Hammons

One of his Hammons’ most famous works is African-American Flag (pictured) created in 1990.

New York-based artist David Hammons’ work revolves around symbols, subverting the meaning we ascribe to them to give them new meanings and resonance.

He said “outrageously magical things happen when you mess around with a symbol,” and his sculptures, created from everyday items, are indeed outrageously magical things.

One of his most famous works African-American Flag, was created in 1990 for the Black USA exhibition at the Museum Overholland in the Netherlands, and was inspired by the US flag and the Pan-African flag created by Marcus Garvey in 1920.

Hammons’ iconic flag was produced in an edition of just five, with the flag for the Black USA exhibition flying in the courtyard of the Museumplein in Amsterdam, a striking visual cue for the exhibition in the heart of Amsterdam’s culture district.

Kara Walker

Kara Walker’s early works were blown up to huge proportions. (Knulclunk at English Wikipedia)

Another New York-based artist Kara Walker, whose work has most recently been seen in London at Tate Modern, examines slavery before, during, and after the Civil War.

Her early works focused on silhouette, though blown up to huge proportions.

New-York based artist, Kara Walker, has most recently seen her work displayed in London at the Tate Modern. (Bing Creative Commons)

Walker’s first sculpture was a colossal installation sited inside an old sugar factory in New York entitled A Subtlety, or The Marvelous Sugar Baby, an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant.

The work centred around a 35-foot tall sphinx-like woman, created from sugar, surrounded by attendants.

Walker’s work acts as a bridge between folklore and modernity, often harshly demonstrating the duality of enslaved women as both mothers and sex objects, graphically reenacting power imbalances. 

In creating works which are sometimes difficult to look at, Walker confronts the everyday racism still pervasive in society, and suggests that it is only by facing up to difficult histories that we might change things.

Kimathi Donkor

Some of Dr Kimathi Donkor’s work has focused on mythologised characters. (Bing Public Domain)

Dr Kimathi Donkor’s work, The Rescue of Andromeda reimagines Andromeda as she was initially depicted, as a Black Ethiopian princess, before Renaissance artists recast her (in her enduring state) as white.

In this piece, Donkor challenges a “classical”, Eurocentric vision of beauty, as well as questioning the whitewashing of classical myths and legends.

His other works similarly focus on mythologised characters, asking the viewer to replace their own visions of each story.

Donkor’s latest work, The Notebook Series, is currently exhibiting at Brixton Library. He lives and works in London.

Sir Frank Bowling

Frank Bowling moved to the UK from Guyana (the British territory of Guiana) in 1953, at 19.

He studied at the Royal College of Art alongside David Hockney before relocating to New York thirteen years later, having felt excluded by the art scene in 1950s London and frustrated by being labelled a ‘Caribbean artist’ and the expectation of creating art based on postcolonial protest.

He actively “rejected the idea that ‘artists who happen to be black’ should be making overtly political or protest art and defended those engaged in abstraction.”

In New York, Bowling was awarded two Guggenheim fellowships and set up his own studio in Brooklyn. He returned to England in 1975, where he continues to live and work, in a South London studio.

Bowling’s long career spans from figuration into the abstract, with his move to New York marking a change in direction, as he explored different ways of creating.

At the first World Festival of Black Arts, held in Senegal in 1966, Bowling won the Grand Prize for Contemporary Arts with his painting Big Bird. Tate Britain hosted a retrospective of his work in 2019, a year before his knighthood for services to art in 2020.

The above artists are merely a fraction of some of the amazing contributions people from the African and Caribbean diaspora have made to society. Black History Month is important for recognising this talent. Learning from different cultures makes us a more inclusive and open society which should be celebrated year-round.  

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