Women Artists

Five Black Female Artists You Should Know

Carlotta Mazzoli 2 February 2024 min Read

From the Venice Biennale to the Turner Prize to museums and gallery representation, Black female artists are gaining more and more popularity in the art world. Here are five of them you need to know.

Over the past few years African art has gained increasing popularity both in the art market as well as among institutions and museums. Thanks to exhibitions, publications, and prizes, the general public has gained familiarity with African and African diasporic artists. This increasing interest is proving to be beneficial not just for the artists and the market. It is also broadening the discussion around themes such as inclusivity, representation, and decolonization. 

Among the most active advocates for such a surge in popularity are Black female artists. Last year marked a great turning point, with Veronica Ryan winning the Turner Prize in the UK, and Simone Leigh being the first female African American artist to represent the US at the Venice Biennale, just to name a few. 

Black female artists are pushing themes that need to be addressed not just among the BIPOC community, but on a much broader scale. From feminism to identity and LGBTQIA+, environmental, and anti-capitalist themes, these artists are at the forefront of the current discourse in the contemporary art world. 

So, to celebrate Black History Month 2023, here are five great Black female artists you need to know. 

1. Kara Walker

Black Female Artists: Artist Kara Walker, Tate, London, UK. Courtesy of the museum.

Artist Kara Walker, Tate, London, UK. Courtesy of the museum.

Recognized as one of the most influential contemporary artists, New York-based Kara Walker works across media, ranging from painting to installation, prints, and films. Famous for her tableaux of black cut-paper silhouettes, Walker addresses themes such as race, gender, sexuality, and violence. Her work often stems from a reflection on American history, especially in relation to slavery. 

Born in Stockton, California in 1969, Walker was raised in Atlanta. She attended the Atlanta College of Art (BFA, 1991), and the Rhode Island School of Design (MFA, 1994). Her work has been exhibited internationally, in some of the most prestigious venues and exhibitions globally, such as The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (New York), The Museum of Modern Art (New York), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, (New York), The Tate Gallery (London), the MAXXI – Museo Nazionale delle Arti del XXI Secolo (Rome), and Deutsche Bank (Frankfurt).

One of the artist’s most famous works, A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby (2014), represents a Black woman depicted as a giant sugar-covered sphinx-like sculpture. It addresses themes relating to sugar production and the exploitation of Black workers. The installation was her first large-scale public project and it was hosted inside the former Domino sugar factory in Williamsburg (Brooklyn, New York). 

2. Veronica Ryan

Black Female Artists: Portrait of Veronica Ryan with her exhibition, Along a Spectrum, 2021, Spike Island, Bristol, UK.

Portrait of Veronica Ryan with her exhibition, Along a Spectrum, 2021, Spike Island, Bristol, UK.

The most recent winner of the Turner Prize, Veronica Ryan is a Montserrat-born British artist. After moving to the UK with her family as part of the Windrush generation, Ryan started working as an artist in the 80s. She primarily works with sculpture and large-scale installations, drawing upon her family history and traditions, as well as elements derived from Black and Caribbean cultures. Her work deals with themes such as memory and loss, dislocation, history, and community. Furthermore, her practice involves the collection and repurposing of materials and textiles that the artist uses to create delicate yet poignant pieces. 

Ryan has been exhibiting since the early 80s, taking part in group and solo exhibitions across the UK and internationally. Meanwhile her works can be found in prestigious collections, such as the Arts Council of Great Britain at Tate, and The Henry Moore Collection.

Yet it was only in recent years that the artist gained the recognition she deserves. In 2021, Ryan received a commission from the London Borough of Hackney for a permanent public monument celebrating the Windrush generation. The result is a series of sculptures depicting three Caribbean fruits, Custard Apple (Annonaceae)Breadfruit (Moraceae), and Soursop (Annonaceae), which received the 2022 Marsh Award for Excellence in Public Sculpture. In 2022, moreover, the artist was shortlisted and won the Turner Prize, for her exhibition Along a Spectrum, on show at Bristol’s Spike Island. She was also selected for the Whitney Biennial in New York. 

3. Simone Leigh

Black Female Artists: Simone Leigh in her studio, 2021. Photo Shaniqwa Jarvis. Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery.

Simone Leigh in her studio, 2021. Photo Shaniqwa Jarvis. Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery.

Another artist worth mentioning (and whose work also gained international popularity during 2022) is Simone Leigh. Born in Chicago in 1967, Leigh has been active for over 20 years working with a vast range of mediums, including sculpture, video, and performance. She is particularly famous for her works inspired by Black feminist theory and Black femme interiority. Her work often reflects and draws inspiration from shapes, materials, and processes linked to African and African diasporic traditions. 

Leigh is particularly interested in the female body and its representation as well as the shared practices of Black female communities. She pairs traditional aesthetics and techniques, such as lost-wax casting, raffia, and shells, with powerful images and representations of race, gender, community, and beauty, to create monumental structures and towering sculptures. 

Her works have been shown in some of the most prominent American and international museums and events, such as the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (New York), the 2019 Whitney Biennial (New York), the New Museum of Contemporary Art (New York), Tate Modern, (London), Furthermore the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art (New York), the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (New York), the Art Institute of Chicago, Cleveland Museum of Art, Hammer Museum (Los Angeles), and the ICA/Boston, all hold her works.

In 2022, Leigh was selected to represent the United States in their national pavilion at the 59th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia. The first Black woman to ever represent the US at the prestigious festival, the artist completely altered the pavilion and presented a series of new sculptural works. Moreover, her work Brick House, a towering sculpture and a hybrid between a Black woman and a traditional house is on display in the central exhibition of the Biennale. Meanwhile The Milk of Dreams, earned her the 2022 Golden Lion prize as the best artist in the exhibition.

4. Tschabalala Self

Black Female Artists: Tschabalala Self, with a sculpture, Glory, and a painting, Flowergirl, 2017. Photo Joshua McHugh.

Tschabalala Self, with a sculpture, Glory, and a painting, Flowergirl, 2017. Photo Joshua McHugh.

Much younger than the previous artists, Tschabalala Self is one of the most promising artists of the new generation. Born in 1990 in Harlem, she had her first solo show in 2015 at Schur-Narula in Berlin, after graduating in painting and printmaking at the Yale School of Art. Since 2016, Self has presented her work internationally, with both solo and group exhibitions in New York, London, Los Angeles, and Miami, to name a few.

Known for her mixed media works, Self primarily investigates Black female figures using paint, fabric, and discarded materials. Although her work can incorporate different elements and mediums, she works predominantly on canvas, applying painting techniques and visual references to her production. Her technique can be described as a sort of collage or patchwork; the artist, in fact, traces a drawing of the character she wants to illustrate, which she later fills up with different items and materials. Despite being sexually explicit, her characters are meant to denounce racial and generational trauma through the exaggerated proportions of the bodies represented.

5. Precious Okoyomon

Black Female Artists: Artist Precious Okoyomon. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Artist Precious Okoyomon. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Another young but promising artist, Nigerian-American Precious Okoyomon works with sculpture, moving images, installations, performances, and poetry. Selected for the 59th Venice Biennale in 2022 with the site-specific work To See the Earth Before the End of the World (2022), Okoyomon was one of the youngest artists represented.

Their multidisciplinary practice investigates the relationship between race and Nature, and how this relationship is influenced by notions such as colonization, history, and slavery. Their work often deals with concepts of race, intimacy, and queerness, and also draws from their family and personal history.

Okoyomon presented their work in solo and group exhibitions internationally, in Frankfurt, Zurich, London, New York, and Berlin, among others. They were also included in Cultured Magazine’s “30 under 35” list of notable emerging artists.

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