Black History Baby Names: African-American artists

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.


Adrian Piper—(b.1948) an artist who introduces issues of race and gender into her conceptual art.  Note the conventionally male spelling of her name, rather than the usual feminine Adrienne.

Alma Thomas—(b.1891), moved from realistic to more abstract, expressionist paintings, two of which were chosen by Michelle Obama for the White House.

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.

Carrie Mae Weems—(b. 1953) , an award-winning mixed-media artist whose work incorporates photography, fabric, digital images and video, much it exploring black family life, racism and gender issues.

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.

Kara Walker— (b.1969) is known for her exploration of race, gender and identity, employing  large black cut-paper silhouettes, many portraying violence against slaves in the Antebellum South.

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.

Lorna Simpson— (born 1960), an artist and photographer who often portrays black women, the visuals combined with expressive, confrontational texts.

Meta Warrick Fuller— (b.1877) is considered the first American black artist to reflect African themes; a sculptor who studied in Paris and was influenced by Rodin.

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.


Aaron Douglas—(b.1899),  a painter and graphic artist who played a major role in the Harlem Renaissance, incorporating Cubist forms with shapes drawn from African art.

Archibald Motley—(b. 1891), another Harlem Renaissance figure, known for his colorful depiction of Black life in the 1920s and 1930s.

Beauford Delaney— (b.1901),  known for his vivid paintings of the New York urban landscape, was a mentor to the young James Baldwin and his friends included Georgia O’Keeffe and Henry Miller.

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.

Hale Woodruff—(b. 1900), a printmaker, painter and muralist (he apprenticed with Diego Rivera), whose works were primarily in the Cubist mode.

Horace Pippen– (b.1888), whose paintings depict scenes from his childhood and World War I experiences, as well as portraits of figures like Marian Anderson.

Jacob Lawrence— (b.1917), a major figure who referred to his style as “dynamic cubism,” portrayed the struggles of African-Americans, his subjects including Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass.

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.

Richmond Barthé—(b. 1901), a sculptor known for his many public works, focusing on the lives of blacks, both in the United States and Africa.

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.

Sargent  Claude Johnson– (b.1888), a multi-talented painter, printmaker, sculptor, ceramist and potter influenced by the New Negro Movement, focused on racial identity.

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.

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5 Responses to “Black History Baby Names: African-American artists”

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Nyx Says:

February 16th, 2012 at 2:47 am

It is actually spelled Howardena (with an “ena” not an “ina”).

pam Says:

February 16th, 2012 at 9:03 am

Thanks, Nyx. Fixed.

kgcg31 Says:

February 16th, 2012 at 10:16 am

Great list . . . I was fortunate to see some of these artists pieces at the Denver Art Museum, a few years back . . . A few names I love- Alma, Lois, and Archibald- and a few intriguing names I had not heard of before, including Dox and Romare. Edmonia and Howardena are such inventive creations . . . I have a couple of students who were named with feminized versions of their fathers names,(Of course, I asked :))Shawnelle and Rodnesha.

TracyLeighann Says:

February 16th, 2012 at 8:57 pm

First off, as one of your African American readers…I love this blog.

When I was born, my daddy named me Thomasina Howarda after him. My mother hated it from the beginning and after a month changed my name to Tracy Leighann. However I have a cousin that was not so fortunate and is named Harolyn after my uncle Harold.

I love Palmer, Richmond and Beauford on the boys side. And Alma and Augusta on the girls side.

miloowen Says:

February 16th, 2012 at 10:17 pm

I love Alma and Augusta too. Romare is quite common down here in Florabama. My students have such unique and interesting names, as well as some truly quirky ones. I’ve known the following girls named for their daddies: Clintnisha, Johnesia, and Jamesha. There’s Chandelier and Timbre (her parents are well-known singers). I’ve got some very old-fashioned names for students this year: Edna, Mattie, Deborah, Keturah. This year seems to be the year of the name Damien, from Damon to Daimon to Damien to Daimeon.

You forgot Frank Johnson, one of the great original spiritual singers, and the poet Claude McKay. Also the marvelous Phillis Wheatley.

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