Seven Artists and Curators Reveal a Cherished, Overlooked Black Artist

Ingrid Pollard, Oceans Apart series (1989) (courtesy of Ingrid Pollard)

The extensive impact of Black culture on visual history is prominent and unignorable. In recent years, popular international exhibitions like Soul of a Nation platformed overlooked, critical Black artists whose cultural impact has been neglected in mainstream museum exhibitions, alongside acclaimed figures like Barkley Hendricks and Faith Ringgold. I asked a series of curators and artists working today, from different generations and varied backgrounds, to share a Black artist they treasure, but feel has not received the wide-reaching commendation they deserve.

Each curator and artist wrote to me with their contribution, highlighting a Black artist — and for some, artists — whose work they deeply cherish. Their chosen artists are diverse and vital, working in abstraction, figurative illustration, photography, and beyond. Nearly all of the artists are still living and practicing, with some emerging in their careers and some with decades behind them.

Read their contributions below:

Chloë Bass

Conceptual artist working with performance, installation, social practice, and notions of intimacy.

Stanley Brouwn, “1m horiontal/1m vertikal,” graphite on paper laid down on canvas, in two parts, 116.5 by 32.5 cm. 45 3/4 by 12 7/8 in. (courtesy of Sotheby’s)

“My contribution to this is Stanley Brouwn — who I feel is not under-represented but is still weirdly relatively under-known. As a Black artist working in text, informed by legacies of minimalism and conceptualism, and interested in everyday materials, he’s a ghost who haunts my work. His work is in MoMA’s collection! Artforum, ArtNews, and Frieze reported his death in 2017. He isn’t forgotten. Yet I haven’t run into many people who are my peers who know about his work, or who would recognize that work with respect to contemporary positions about Blackness, complex identities, or political conversations.”

Makeda Best

Educator and curator of photography at the Harvard Art Museums with a specialty in 19th- and 20th-century American photography.

Chester Higgins, Jr. “Crescent Soul” (courtesy of the artist)

“During my first week as an art student at CalArts, I learned about the work of Clarissa Sligh and twenty years later, her ongoing and prolific production that includes artists books, photographs, and installations continue to excite me – raw, tactile, rhythmic — she transforms the words, photographs, and experiences of everyday life and popular culture.

“As the Brexit saga and its concurrent debates about the meaning of Britishness and British identity continue to unfold, the work of the British-based, Guyanese-born artist and photographer Ingrid Pollard has been on my mind. She explores the histories, symbols, spaces, economies and lived experiences that bind contemporary Britain to its past – an ongoing and subversive ‘family album.’

“Finally, I am thinking about the Brooklyn based photographer Chester Higgins, Jr., because of his gracefully encyclopedic and profound oeuvre is grounded in the belief in the connections between people of African descent and his tireless work to document it.”

Amanda Hunt

Co-curator of Desert X and director of education and curator of programs at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

Desert X installation view, Eric N. Mack, Halter, 2019, photo by Lance Gerber (courtesy of Desert X)

“Artist Eric N. Mack is not without recognition and accolades, but the utterly seamless range of his work is yet to be fully appreciated, perhaps even realized. Mack’s visual language is a kind of poetry that establishes a particular brand of fluidity between painting, sculpture, and fashion, and it is evolving in strides. Overlapping and overlaying materials in ways that progress and expand the art historical thread of Daniel Buren, David Hammons, and Christo and Jeanne-Claude, his discreet works and installations evoke the body, the street, and the way in which we dress our identities for ourselves and/or for others. This season marks his second runway collaboration with London-based fashion label Wales Bonner, bringing him ever closer to the source, but on his own terms.

“His work for the Desert X 2019 Biennial is the largest piece he’s made to date. A rumination on shelter, it is a work that elegantly, expertly drapes an abandoned car garage in a mix of Missoni fabrics, an ultimately romantic expression that captures the wind as well as each visitor who encounters it. Lemme walk across the room is his first solo exhibition up now at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, dramatically staged in its iconic Great Hall. Our story began at the Studio Museum in Harlem and I look forward to its next chapters. He is just getting started.”

Ugochukwu-Smooth Nzewi

Artist, art historian, and curator of African art at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Sonya Clark, “Black Hair Flag” (2011), Cloth, paint, cotton thread (courtesy of the artist)

Sonya Clark is an exceptional artist who has yet to receive critical attention that matches the depth of her practice and her incomparable investment in raising the next generation of socially-engaged artists as an art professor. She is one of the few artists who can be genuinely addressed as a public artist. Public artists are not necessarily artists who grab the imagination because they are famous with great CVs and institutional presence; or because they have created iconic public art. Instead, they are committed to acting as the public conscience time after time by addressing thorny issues with compassion, deep understanding, and honesty.  Through their work, they mirror the pulse of our time without compromising the integrity of the aesthetic experience. Such is Clark’s art that stirs the sublime and conscience with its arresting clarity and visual eloquence.

“In a career spanning more than two decades, Clark has carried on a sustained inquiry on the black experience in the United States; grappling with questions centered on history, social justice, institutional racism and racial inequality in such works as Afro Abe II (2010), Black Hair Flag (2010), Unravelling & Unraveled (2015). With these complex works, she shines a contemporary light on the unfinished business of America’s slavery and Jim Crow past with candor and nuance. She maintains an interest in craft as cultural practice and the materiality of form that it conveys by working with common objects such as human hair, combs, clothes, and beads albeit loaded with cultural symbolism. These objects are transformed in a variety of ways in her wide-ranging practice that includes sculpture, ceramic, installation, and performance. Yet with some of these artifacts that reflect religious beliefs, she traces a continuum between Africa and its diaspora such as in Beaded Prayers Project (1999–2004)an accumulative installation that comprises over 4000 beaded prayers, she explores amulets as body adornment, and for their more intrinsic value as divination, protective, spiritual, and healing objects in the African and African Diaspora traditions. 

“Although she is the recipient of numerous grants, awards, and fellowships, including ArtPrize Juried Grand Prize (co-winner in 2014), and Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship in 2010 and 2011; has held countless exhibition and is featured in several collections; she is yet to command the attention that she truly deserves, perhaps because she would rather work quietly and away from the PR-driven machinery of the art world today.”

Dread Scott

Contemporary artist working in performance, installation, video, photography, printmaking, and painting.

Robert Pruitt, “Usher Board President” (2018), charcoal, conté, and coffee on paper, 84 x 60 inches (image courtesy the artist and Koplin Del Rio Gallery, Seattle)

“It’s a different time than when I was in art school in the 1980s. At the time, the overwhelming majority of artists taught and those who were being shown and critically praised were almost all white. Now, Basquiat and Kerry James Marshall fetch top prices at auctions and are widely known.  Art students in many places learn about Carrie Mae Weems, Fred Wilson, Kara Walker, Glen Ligon, David Hammons, and Jack Whitten. Even artists a half generation younger like Wangechi Mutu, Mickalene Thomas, Simone Leigh, and Hank Willis Thomas are fairly widely known.

“So I’d choose to highlight five younger artists and one underappreciated legend. Deborah Roberts, Vanessa German, Ja’Tovia Gary, Ebony G. Patterson, and Robert A. Pruitt are all badass, and everyone should be checking out what they’re doing.

Roy DeCarava, “Graduation” (1949). © The Estate of Roy DeCarava 2018. All rights reserved. Courtesy David Zwirner.

“As for legends, Roy DeCarava is god. Every Black photographer 40 or over I know of has been influenced by him. Yet he isn’t as well known outside of photography circles. Back in the day, the art world didn’t really accept photography, so Roy isn’t as recognized outside of photography circles as he should be. If you don’t know Roy’s work, stop reading this right now and correct that deficiency.”

Lowery Stokes Sims

Curator, art historian, and museum administrator who has been a leader at institutions including the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Museum of Arts and Design.

Mary Lovelace O’Neal, “Racism is Like Rain, Either It’s Raining or It’s Gathering Somewhere” (1993) acrylic and mixed media on canvas, 86 x 138 inches (photo courtesy of the Mott-Warsh Collection, Flint MI. © Mary Lovelace O’Neal)

“My nomination for an African American artist who, despite longevity and diligence, has not gotten the recognition they deserve is Mary Lovelace O’Neal. As a great abstractionist who works on a grand scale, she has escaped notice being a woman of her generation and working on the West Coast.”

Deborah Willis

Photographer, curator, educator, and academic who founded the Center for Black Visual Culture at New York University.

“Black Like Blue in Argentina” (2018), Archival pigment print on canvas, from Adama Delphine Fawundu’s solo exhibition opening at Crush Curatorial on March 14, 2019 (courtesy of Adama Delphine Fawundu)

“I would like for you to consider Adama Delphine Fawundu. I have known Delphine for over fifteen years as a photographer.  My initial encounter with her began when I was looking for photographers to include in my book, Black: A Celebration of a Culture in 2005.  I was interested specifically in her body of work documenting the global hip hop scene. She is someone who cares deeply about her audience, the general public, and her fellow photographers not only in terms of their understanding of global issues focusing on hip hop music and the talents of men and women in Africa and the U.S., but also in terms of the community activism deconstructing images of black women. Deconstructing SHE is one of her projects that I’ve included in an exhibition recently.  It examines the destructive impact of the media on ideas of beauty and self.

She is an activist-artist who continues to impress me with her work through the visual experience, her writings, and her talks.  She presents engaging arguments on the music scene and images on the black female body.  In her work and on her blog, she is, in my view, creating a space for discussions focusing on images on black music, the black body, and social justice.  For Delphine, creativity and scholarship are both necessary to make change. Delphine borrows from popular culture and history as she plays with the illusions of the viewer and the role of the photograph in recording perceptions of idealized beauty.  I look forward to seeing her work published more and exhibited widely.”

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