Art Education

6 contemporary black artists your students should know

Are you looking for ways to bring more diversity into your art room? Below you’ll find six contemporary black artists whose work you can weave into your lessons throughout the year as you study painting, sculpture, and collage, as well as line, shape, color, and symbolism.  

By shining a light on these artists’ work, you’ll expose students to new ways of thinking and creating and help them make connections to their lives and the broader world around them.  

Bisa Butler  

Bisa Butler is an American textile artist who creates quilted portraits that explore black identity. Her vibrant colors, patterns, and subject choices create an homage to African American life.  

As you consider Butler’s work with students, discuss how she begins her process with black and white photos. Ask students about her color choices and the symbolism in her fabrics. Ask them to describe the personalities of the people in Butler’s work. How does she convey a story through her quilts?  

Then, have students create their own fiber art on a smaller scale or have them choose another unexpected medium to produce portraits.  

To extend your study of Butler, team up with core teachers to have students write stories based on the people depicted in Butler’s quilts. What are their lives like? How do they think and feel? What problems do they have? Have students who wrote about the same quilt compare stories. What was similar in their stories? What was different? 

Jean-Michel Basquiat 

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s artwork explores themes of racism and colonialism. Classified as a neo-expressionist, his work features unrestrained emotional linework, text, and symbolism. His trademark symbol of a three-pointed crown can be found in many of his artworks and symbolizes majesty, strength, and royalty. 

After examining Basquiat’s work, have grade-school students practice working with symbolism and mark-making with tempera sticks and oil pastels with this free “Abstract dinosaur paintings” lesson plan. 

Amy Sherald  

Amy Sherald is probably best known for her portrait of Michelle Obama. In fact, along with Kehinde Wiley, she is the first African American commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery to paint a presidential portrait.  

Sherald’s work has a graphic quality and features striking backgrounds and bold full-body portraits of sitters who often gaze directly at the viewer. She uses grisaille, or shades of gray, to portray her skin tones, in stark contrast to the rest of the painting.  

Have students or teachers “commission” your students to paint a portrait imitating Sherald’s style. Remind them that the color choices are theirs; however, their paintings should be graphic and bold and their skin tones created using shades of gray.  

Make sure every student feels represented

With the Nasco Multicultural Art Supply Pack, you’ll have everything you need to help students create diverse and inclusive art.

Lina Iris Viktor 

Lina Viktor creates large-scale paintings and sculptures in a limited color palette that feature gilded sections crafted from 24 karat gold. Along with gold, she also integrates materials such as volcanic rock and black marble. 

As you examine Viktor’s paintings, sculptures, and installation pieces, ask students how they feel when they view them. What moods do the pieces evoke? Discuss color and contrast, as well as how limiting your palette can affect your artwork. How do the gold details change or add to Viktor’s art?  

Let students experiment with limiting their color palettes and adding their own “gold” or metallic details with the supplies in the Nasco Metallic Art Supply Enhancement Pack

Yinka Shonibare 

Yinka Shonibare is an interdisciplinary artist whose works include painting, sculpture, installations, and photography that focus on the intricacies of cultural identity. As a young art student, Shonibare developed transverse myelitis, a disease that left him paralyzed on one side of his body.   

Shonibare’s disability did not stop him from creating a body of work that includes large public art installations. This includes his wind sculpture series, with works such as Wind Sculpture (SG) I and Wind Sculpture VII. Just like these sculptures, many of his artworks feature batik fabric, or fabric that has been coated in wax designs and then dyed. You can walk students through the batik process and using symbolism and positive and negative space with this easy classroom kit

After viewing Shonibare’s work, discuss public art installations with students. What purpose do they serve? How do they make people feel and think?  

Then, have students plan their own public art installations by researching where they could erect their art and then drawing plans for it on a small scale. If your school has the available space, plan a collaborative piece of public art, such as a tile mosaic, that your students can all contribute to.  

Wangechi Mutu  

Wangechi Mutu, painter and collage artist, works by “piecing together magazine imagery with painted surfaces and found materials.” 

Mutu uses a variety of mediums to create her surrealist pieces. Share some of her work with students and ask them what they notice about her art (note that not all her artworks might be considered appropriate in your school setting). Students might notice the natural materials combined with magazine photographs. They might also notice that different body parts are used to make up parts of a face or other parts of a body.  

After discussing Mutu’s work, give students artistic license to work with a variety of media to create collages, including old books, maps, magazines, paint, paper, and found objects. Get started quickly with the free “I am an artist” lesson plan.  
Before students begin, talk about what they wish to express and what media would help them express it. Discuss color, rhythm, and symbolism, and then set them free to create! 

More black artists to discover   

Your art room offers an environment for students to feel safe and free to express themselves, and the work you are doing to diversify your lessons is so important. As you continue to integrate diversity into your lessons, check out a few more black artists who’ve made their mark in the world:  

  • Julie Mehretu: A large-scale abstract and multimedia artist, Mehretu’s gestural works are reminiscent of cities and geographies.  
  • Kerry James Marshall: Marshall’s work depicts themes that were typically excluded from Western art.  
  • Kehinde Wiley: Wiley is an American portrait painter who is most well-known for painting President Barack Obama’s portrait. 
  • Philemona Williamson: Williamson is a figurative painter who explores storytelling, narrative, and forms of surrealism with her intriguing work. 
6 contemporary black artists your students should know

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