This year, for Black History month, we salute not the political activists or barrier breakers, but some distinguished African-American painters, sculptors and photographers–accentuating, of course, those with the most interesting names.
These Black history names range in time from portrait painter Joshua Johnson, born in 1763 and viewed as the first person of color to make his living as an artist in America, to contemporary women artists like Lorna Simpson, Ellen Gallagher and Kara Walker who confront issues of race head-on in their work.
The following is, of course, just a small representation of the countless distinguished artists of color.
Augusta Savage— (b.1892), a sculptor who was part of the Harlem Renaissance. Students in her Harlem studio included Jacob Lawrence and Gwendolyn Knight. She chose the unusual spelling of Agnus as her daughter’s name.
Chakaia Booker—(b.1953), an assemblage artist who has worked with a variety of materials, including black rubber tires, said to address African-American identity.
Clementine Hunter (b.1886)–pronounced clem-en-TEEN, just like Mrs. Winston Churchill— was originally named Clemence. A self-taught Louisiana Creole folk artist who began painting in her fifties, her work depicts plantation life in the early 20th century.
Edmonia Lewis—(b.1844), the first African-American woman to gain international recognition as a sculptor, drawing inspiration from her mixed cultural heritage— Haitian and Ojibwa. She was commissioned by President Ulysses S. Grant to paint his portrait.; her name is an unusual feminization of Edmond.
Ellen Gallagher—(b.1965) appropriates images from vintage magazines, such as wigs, lips and other features, reconfigured into formal paintings to show how African-Americans have been represented and stereotyped.
Faith Ringgold– (b. 1930) is best known for her painted story quilts modeled on Buddhist Thangkas, and has also illustrated a number of prize-winning books.
Howardena Pindell—(b.1943), an abstract artist, known for her use of unconventional materials, such as string, perfume and glitter. She was, not surprisingly, named for her father, Howard.
Lois Mailou Jones –(b. 1905), a painter, illustrator and textile designer who was part of the Harlem Renaissance, combined traditional African forms with Western techniques and materials to produce vivid and forceful work.
Minnie Evans—(b.1892), a visionary folk artist who was a onetime domestic, started drawing inspired by a dream, and her colorful, complex crayon drawings continued to be based on dreams. She had a major exhibition at the Whitney Museum in 1975.
Dawoud Bey (b.1953) , born David, is a photographer focused on portraits of teenagers from a wide spectrum of ethnic and economic backgrounds.
Dox Thrash—(b. 1893) worked with the 1930s Federal Arts Project, where he invented a printmaking process called carborundum mezzotint. Dox wins first prize for the most interesting name on this list.
Gordon Parks—(b. 1912) Well known photographer turned filmmaker ,Parks was the first African-American to work as a staff photographer on Life magazine and the first black artist to produce and direct a major Hollywood film, in 1969.
Joshua Johnson (c.1763), one of the earliest known African-American artists, was born a slave, and freed at the age of 19. His respected portraits of Baltimore families with children had a naïve quality.
Palmer Hayden — (b. 1890) was part of the Harlem Renaissance; he is known for his watercolor narrative scenes of Harlem life and the rural South. Born Peyton Cole Hedgeman, he was renamed by his World War I commanding sergeant.
Romare Bearden—(1911) was a significant figure of the Harlem Renaissance whose work encompassed everything from oil paintings to collage to cartoons.
Roy DeCarava—(b.1919), a photographer who began as a painter and illustrator, which is reflected in the strength and richness of his photos.
Ulysses Davis— (b.1913), a Savannah barber who was also a skilled folk artist, known for his wood carvings, including an acclaimed series of busts of forty U.S presidents, using his barber’s tools for textural details.