10 Contemporary Black Women Visual Artists You Should Know

Mickalene Thomas, "Din Une Tres Belle Negresse 2," 2011 by Nneka M. Okona Carvin...

Mickalene Thomas, "Din Une Tres Belle Negresse 2," 2011

by Nneka M. Okona

Carving out a space for themselves, their voices, their stories, their dedication to the craft of visual arts, this group of Black women, with varied interests and backgrounds, almost make it look effortless. These 10 brilliant Black women use their gifts and the allure of their artistry to explore a vast amount of subjects, issues and themes — sexuality, race, femininity, gender, history. And they do so in interesting, innovative ways.


Shantell Martin 
Based in Brooklyn, Shanell’s artistry can best be described as telling the stories from her life using a black and white palette. Incorporating and transforming everyday items — walls, sneakers, luxury goods or any odds and ends — Shanell creates new masterpieces with her unique vision. To date, Shanell has collaborated with a number of brands, including 3x1 denim, Suno and Jaw and Bone.



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Brianna McCarthy
On first glance at any of Brianna’s work, the first thing you’re sure to notice are the bright, loud colors which combine in a harmonious blend. This Trinidad & Tobago native, where she is also currently based, prides herself on that signature, one which she uses to examine and begin discourse on topics she deems important — beauty, stereotypes and representation. Her work takes the form of performance art, fabric collage, traditional media and installations.

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Kara Walker 
A bold expressionist who tackles the themes of history, power, race, repression and sexuality, Kara Walker is known for her trademark room size black cut paper silhouettes. In college and graduate school, she focused on painting, printmaking and overall design, although her work has taken many other forms, such as text, video, film, performance and cyclorama. Perhaps the most notable honor she received was a MacArthur Foundation genius grant, making her the second youngest person to ever receive it. Most recently, Kara’s much talked about exhibit “A Subtlety” appeared at the now demolished Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn.

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Renee Cox
Self-dubbed as one of the most controversial Black women working today, Renee doesn’t shy away from using her art as tool to inspire discourse on both racism and sexism. Two of her most reactionary pieces, perhaps, were “In It Shall be Named,” which depicted a Black man’s distorted body in elven separate pictures, hanging from a cross and “Yo Mama’s Last Supper,” a remake of the famous Leonardo Da Vinci piece with Renee nude as Jesus and all Black disciples except for Judas, shown as White.

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Kesha Bruce
In a beautiful marriage of magical & spiritual belief, memory and personal mythology, Kesha Bruce explores those connections through her work. Some notable collections, such as “(Re)calling and (Re)telling”, use mixed media to combine personal experience, family mythologies and African American history; and “The Totem Series”, which displays narrative portraits of hybrid beings. Currently, she has permanent collections at The Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture and The University of Iowa Women’s Center, to name a few. Kesha lives and works in France.

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Caitlin Cherry
Brooklyn-based Caitlin Cherry is most known for her large-scale installations in the Brooklyn-based museum Raw/Cooked series. In her project for the series entitled “Hero Safe”, Caitlin curated three paintings that drew upon Leonardo Da Vinci for inspiration. In each installation, there is a wood structure that acts as support for the painting present.

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Xaviera Simmons 
Xaviera has always known on a soul level she wanted to be an artist, as she has always been a creator of something, even when being a midwife competed for her time. The breadth of her work touches on many types of visual artistry — installations, sculptures, photographs, videos and performances. Xaviera currently has several pieces on permanent collections, including at the High Museum in Atlanta, Georgia and the Museum of Contemporary Art in New York City.

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Mickalene Thomas 
Femininity and beauty are the dominating themes present in Mickalene’s work, a New York City based artist. She routinely uses items such as rhinestones, acrylic and enamel to push her vision and to bring each of her pieces of art full circle. Mickalene cites Henri Matisse, Romare Bearden and Edourad Manet as inspiration which communicate her vision.

 Website

Akosua Adoma Owusu
A brilliant filmmaker, Akosua has made a name for herself in the filming scene. Akosua, who is Ghanian, to date has had her films appear in venues across the world, in festivals, museums, galleries and microcinemas. Most recently, her short film “Kwaku Ananse” was the winning film for Ghana at the 2013 Africa Movie Academy Awards for best film.

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Wangechi Mutu 
With each stroke and with each creation, Wangechi’s motivation is to challenge the notions of female sexuality, particularly the depiction of sexuality of African women. Wangechi, who was born in Kenya, isn’t afraid to push the envelope and combine the elements of painting and collage in her pieces.

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Nneka M. Okona is a writer based in Washington, DC. Visit her blog, www.afrosypaella.com, her website, about.me/nnekaokona or follow her tweets, @NisforNneka.

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