Honoring African American Artists during Black History Month

Grace Allison McCurdy and Her Daughters, Mary Jane and Letitia Grace, ca. 1804 by Joshua Johnson.

Grace Allison McCurdy and Her Daughters, Mary Jane and Letitia Grace, ca. 1804 by Joshua Johnson.

To continue the celebration of Black History Month, we’re opening up the Questia library to share free content on our five favorite African American artists for a whole month. We hope you’ll take a few minutes to check them out at the references for each artist!

These five artists span African American art from the present back to the 18th century, and all are well-regarded for their specialty. Jean-Michel Basquiat is probably the most famous of the five, receiving the most visibility in the media.

  1. Joshua Johnson (1763-1824) – Joshua Johnson earned a notable name in the folk art community as one of the first African American portrait painters. The son of a slave mother, he became a blacksmith by trade until he gained his freedom, married and started his own family. Although no artistic training has been noted, he began painting portraits as he moved frequently around the Maryland area. Johnson was known for painting portraits of seated Maryland families and children—his signature elements being books, fruit and red shoes. [Encyclopedia of American Folk Art. Gerard C. Wertkin, Editor]
  1. Harriet Powers (1837-1911) – Harriet Powers was born a slave in 1837. The most popular story surrounding Powers is told by Jenny Smith, an art teacher from Athens, Georgia who purchased Powers’s first quilt for $5. The quilt was a unique combination of Bible stories, meteorological phenomena and African motifs. Smith exhibited the quilt in 1895 at an art show where a few wives of Atlanta University faculty commissioned Powers to make a second. The second piece is now displayed at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Powers’s original quilt purchased by Smith is currently housed in the Textiles Division of the Smithsonian Institution and is the only other remaining piece of her work today. [Singular Women: Writing the Artist. Kristen Frederickson and Sarah E. Webb, Editors]
  1. Dox Thrash (1892-1965) – Though nearly the entire American labor industry faced unemployment and frustration in the Great Depression, cultural workers and artists were severely affected, which lead to the creation of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Federal Art Project (FAP). When printmaker Dox Thrash was in the FAP graphics division in 1938, he created an entirely new graphic process, “the carborundum print,” after rubbing carborundum powder on a sheet of copper. Thrash and a colleague, Herbert Mesibov, refined the process extensively, which reduced the cost and increased the production of speed of engraving. The carborundum print drew widespread attention as it was the only development in fine print making in over 140 years. [Opportunity, Experience, and Recognition: Black Participation in Philadelphia's New Deal Arts Projects, 1936-1942. Arthur R. Jarvis]
  1. Joyce J. Scott (1948-Present) – Since her early twenties, Baltimore artist Joyce J. Scott has used sculpture, monologues, music and theatrics to stir emotion within those viewing her pieces. Subjects range from beautiful to horrific, many times masterfully blending the two. Her late eighties/early nineties “Mammy/Nanny” series explored the concept of black women serving as nannies for white Americans, focusing on the harsh contradiction between beloved caretaker and inferior citizen. [Art Essay Joyce J. Scott's Mammy/Nanny Series. Terry Gips.]
  1. Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) – Born in New York City and raised in an Afro-Caribbean family, Basquiat specialized in graffiti, painting and sculpting. He was raised in Brooklyn and drew inspiration from music, literature, his mother’s Spanish-Caribbean culture and various NYC art museums. He began experimenting with the underground New York graffiti art movement in the seventies before becoming a regular fixture in the New York art world. Basquiat passed away from a heroin overdose at the young age of 27, leaving behind 95 paintings and 900 works on paper. [Artists, Writers, and Musicians: An Encyclopedia of People Who Changed the World. Michel-Andre Bossy, Thomas Brothers, and John C. McEnroe, Editors]

Many museums and universities are exhibiting African American art during Black History Month. The University of California at Riverside in its online news site “UCR Today” recently published an article entitled “African American Women in Art Exhibit Opens.” The author Bettye Miller writes: “Curated by internationally known artist Charles Bibbs, the exhibit includes 13 depictions of African American women in artwork and ranging from acrylics and charcoal to photography and lithographs. Among the works are two pieces by Bibbs: “Tubman’s War,” a mixed media presentation of Harriett Tubman, who escaped slavery to become a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad; and “The Black Madonna,” commissioned for the film “The Secret Life of Bees” and created using a process known as giclee – digital prints made on ink-jet printers.”


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