Welcome to the wild world of contemporary hip-hop and R&B music where only one African American visual artist seems to exist — Jean-Michel Basquiat.
This singular and arbitrary focus is likely a result of rap being a highly aspirational genre and Basquiat started from the bottom, like so many others in hip-hop.
And while that can frequently be one of hip-hop’s strengths, it can also have the effect of making the worldview seem narrower. Much narrower. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a popular musician these days who can name an artist other than Basquiat.
Basquiat may be the Hermes Alligator Skin hoodie of the art game, but the metaphorical, understated-yet-cakey Ralph Lauren boat shoe must exist as well, no?
Get familiar with 5 African-American artists who aren’t named Basquiat.
Henry Ossawa Tanner
Legend has it that Tanner was the first African-American artist to gain international acclaim, and the realities of American society and racial turmoil were reflected in his art and life.
Born in Pittsburgh to a minister father and a mother who escaped slavery via the Underground Railroad, his middle name referenced the Kansas town where the white militant abolitionist John Brown first launched his anti-slavery campaign. The family moved to Philadelphia where, in an odd footnote, Henry’s father became friend and critic of infamous anarchist Benjamin Tucker.
Tanner was the only black student at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and thrived artistically in an era where a tired curriculum’s focus on anatomy was frankly played out. However, Henry refused to be limited by the prevailing artistic norms; he cultivated a realist artistic style which conveyed the weight and structure of the human form on the canvas.
Tanner left America in 1891 for Paris where he acclimated quickly to the Parisian lifestyle and near non-existent racial limitations in the artistic culture. It was vital to Tanner that his work be judged merely for its artistic merit as opposed to potential racial baggage.
Tanner’s career flourished in Europe and he went on to gain a reputation in America where he exhibited his art in places like Philadelphia, Boston, New York, Chicago, Washington, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis. It was on these trips back to America where the ex-pat created some of his most notable works including “The Banjo Lesson,” inspired by Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem, “A Banjo Song.”
Henry worked for the Red Cross Public Information Department in France and painted images from the front lines of World War I…
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