10 great Black moments in the history of American art

Alicia Eler, Star Tribune
·5 min read

The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. The Black Arts Movement of the 1970s. Breaking down stereotypes of all kinds. Speaking truth to power. In selecting 10 great moments in the history of art by Black Americans, it's crucial to recognize that they had to carve out space for themselves while constantly pushing back against institutionalized racism. For Black History Month, we put together this chronological list of culturally significant work, from 19th-century landscape paintings to Black riffs on Western art.

Picturing the land through a Black man's eyesBorn in 1821 as a free man in upstate New York, Robert Duncanson became known as "the greatest landscape painter in the West." He was the only Black artist in the Hudson River School, whose popular, Romanticism-influenced paintings documented the changing landscape. He positioned himself as a master both in the United States and abroad, something no other African American had done. He also made a stop in Minneapolis to paint Minnehaha Falls, a work that is owned by the Minneapolis Club. Twin Cities artist Seitu Jones noted that Duncanson encountered many people on his travels, but details are unknown. "He came here at the time when the Dakota were very present," said Jones. "What was his relation [to them]?"

Depicting the Great Migration northComing of age during the Harlem Renaissance, social realist painter Jacob Lawrence chronicled the African American experience through colorful, abstract paintings that document the joys, struggles and even mundane moments of Black people's lives. His most famous work, the epic 60-panel series "The Migration of the Negro" (1940-41), funded by the Depression-era Works Progress Administration, depicts the wave of African Americans who moved north after 1910. In fact, the Harlem Renaissance itself was fueled by this so-called Great Migration.

Putting a Black spin on 'American Gothic'Legendary photographer Gordon Parks, who spent his formative years in the Twin Cities, shined a light on Black life in America from Jim Crow times through the civil rights era. His famous 1942 parody of Grant Wood's iconic "American Gothic" replaces the white Midwestern man and woman with Ella Watson, a Black woman who worked as a cleaner at the Farm Security Administration. She holds a mop and a broom, her steady gaze reminding viewers of her strength and steadfastness despite the racism and sexism she dealt with on a daily basis.

Busting stereotypes of Black femininityLos Angeles-based artist Betye Saar works in the mystical medium of assemblage. Born in 1926, Saar was part of the 1970s Black Arts Movement, working to break down myths and stereotypes about race and gender. Her 1973 mixed-media work "The Liberation of Aunt Jemima: Cocktail" critiques stereotypes of Black femininity, employing a wine bottle on which she has pasted an old label showing a Black "mammy" plus the raised fist of the Black Power Movement. A cloth hangs out of the bottle's neck, suggesting a Molotov cocktail.

Raising the visibility of society's 'invisible men'Inspired by Ralph Ellison's 1952 novel "Invisible Man," about the difficulties of being Black in America, Kerry James Marshall's haunting 1980 painting "A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self"shows a Black man in a black coat who almost seems to disappear into a black background. The work launched Marshall's career, which has helped remedy the lack of Black representation in art museums.

Breaking the silence of Black gay malesMarlon Riggs' experimental documentary film "Tongues Untied" (1989) shed light on the ways gay Black men felt silenced by Black and white hetero culture and by white male-dominated gay culture. The film is part autobiographical, with Riggs sharing his awareness of his sexuality and experience losing friends to AIDS. It sparked heated controversy as it sought to bring gay male sexuality to the forefront in Black life.

Inspiring a generation of young women of colorIn her iconic "Kitchen Table Series" of photographs (1990), Carrie Mae Weems portrays herself as a self-assured woman at her kitchen table, captured in various moments of romance, love, friendship, laughter and argument. The series represented the first time an African American woman was shown in her element. Her work inspired a generation of young women of color.

Confronting the violent history of U.S. racismKara Walker's 19th-century-inspired cut-paper silhouette forms, usually covering the walls of entire galleries, tell brutal stories from America's history of racism and disturbing power structures. Working with the form of historical tableau, Walker depicts scenes from the antebellum South, showing people engaged in erotically charged sadistic or masochistic acts. Through creating these scenes, Walker brings our attention to abusive power dynamics in American history.

Reimagining 'The Origin of the Universe'Black lesbian Mickalene Thomas felt inspired by Gustave Courbet's 1866 painting "L'Origine du Monde," a fleshy, intimate portrayal of a woman's vagina. In 2012, she repainted the work, replacing the white body with her Black one, with rhinestones for hair and curva­tures. She tears apart Courbet's white male gaze, positioning herself as both viewer and viewed, as the origin of her own universe and the one in control of her physical portrayal. This is where life truly begins. Thomas later painted Michelle Obama's official portrait.

Commemorating the Birmingham bombingNew York-born photographer Dawoud Bey created "The Birmingham Project" as a response to the 50th anniversary of the white supremacist bombing of a Birmingham, Ala., church that killed four girls and two teenage boys. In his large-scale diptychs and a video, he paired present-day kids with older people representing the age the murdered children would have been had they lived — making clear that racist violence is an ongoing atrocity in America.

Alicia Eler • 612-673-4437