Black History Month: 10 Artists Promoting African Creativity in Diaspora
An annual celebration for the achievements and accomplishments of Africans and African-Americans today, The Black History Month was created to raise awareness for their contributions in history and present day. Running from 1 – 29 February, The Black History Month is celebrated in the US, UK and many other parts of the world. While we believe promoting African artists –those on the continent and those in diaspora is a never-ending endeavour, which we joyfully take upon ourselves –we would like to contribute to honouring this important month by spotlighting 10 artists in diaspora, who we have interviewed in the past year, that increase visibility for African identity through their work.
Raél Jero Salley
Raél Jero Salley’s practice is grounded in the history and tradition of painting, but with subjects who are addressed in non-linear ways. Often, Salley’s paintings appear out of context: they resemble photographs, film stills, or commemorative portraits, but they lack definitive names, periods, or narratives. The result is a constellation of images that engage the viewer’s imagination. Generally, his work examines how we look at things and expect them to be meaningful while generating questions and expanding dialogue. Salley started out with taking pictures, and through this, he earned about how complex and special the visual world is. “During my training, I got fascinated by the power of images and pictures, especially how they have the ability to make us think all sorts of wild and wonderful things. So, in addition to making pictures, I became a student of histories of art. I discovered I enjoyed sharing what I learned with both makers and people interested in the history of visual worlds.”
Jay Parnell has been drawing and painting most of his life, primarily using oil on board to create his beautiful, surreal images. What characterises his work is his lush palette filled with earth tones. Often his characters represent a segment of the vibrant inner life of African Americans, immediately identifiable in the poems of James Baldwin, the prose of Toni Morrison, and the hip hop jams of Saul Williams. “I began thinking more deeply about Black identity and different aspects of Black life in the early 2000s. There are well-worn tropes about being Black that are honest but shallow. By dealing with the active inner lives of Black people, I have endeavoured to give my viewers a perspective they didn’t know they were looking for.”
His work also combines elements of historical narrative painting and Christian iconography to question modern mythology in a timeless manner. While his subject is the human figure, his mediums have evolved over the years from pen and ink to watercolour, acrylic and then oils.
Dean Mitchell is highly regarded as one of America’s greatest watercolourists. His reputation hinges largely on his superb craftsmanship, the emotional depth of his work, his avoidance of facile sentimentality, and an accomplished sense of formal design. Proficient in a wide range of media, including egg tempera, oil, and pastel, Mitchell engages with Black identity by drawing his subjects mainly from African-American culture. “Artists are observers of life, and it is natural that I would first gravitate to the space which I occupy. The neighbourhoods I was raised in were segregated. Most of my teachers were Black. Churches I attended were Black, so it is natural for me as an artist to create works that reflect my own personal experience. This is what it is to be human. In this lies the real conflict in growing up in a Euro-centric Western environment, where our images have been vilified, stereotyped, and dismantled. As a result, we have not been looked upon as full human beings. Television was the first place I became aware of the lack of respectable, powerful representation. While in college, my first museum experience taught me that we were totally invisible. They showed nothing of us. My mother had warned me that a Black man could not possibly make a living selling pictures in America. I questioned her concerns until my first encounter at the museum, walking through room after room and not seeing any image that looked like me. They did not value the Black artist’s contributions to the art world. This is a psychological castration. In spite of it, artists of colour continue to create and offer hope for the next generation.”
Tawny Chatmon is based in the United States. She combines traditional portraiture with digital collage, layering elements of antique patterns, vintage botanicals, and wildlife illustrations onto images of her children and other relatives. Once the images are printed, Chatmon often revisits the digital textures she has superimposed, physically adding layers of gold ornamental elements or paint. For her, photographs are the first layer, which she manipulates and unites with other artistic components. She often lends to her subjects older eyes and exaggerated hair.
Chatmon began her photography career 16 years ago and is self-taught. After receiving a scholarship for dramatic arts, she made the decision to pursue commercial photography. Not until taking photographs of her father (who was diagnosed with prostate cancer) did she decide to take a new approach to her work. She chose to make storytelling and Black cultural identity the main focus, especially because Black girls in her environment are discouraged from identifying with their culture because it is not the Eurocentric norm.
“Daily I was reading about news of Black children being sent home from school for their hairstyles; Black women being chastised in the workplace for wearing their hair in natural styles; Black boys, women, and men killed with no regard; beautiful Black children being bullied because of their skin complexion, and so on. I felt I could do something more than just talk about it, cry about it, and share the stories on my social media. Eventually, I began to create, pouring all of the grief into the work. I sat down at my computer and let my emotions lead the way, using materials that were available to me.”
Dawn Okoro is a Nigerian artist best known for her figurative paintings inspired by fashion and popular culture. Okoro’s work is informed by the composition techniques used in fashion photography. Using oil, acrylic, and pencil, she incorporates photography, collage, and ideas from popular culture. Her work embodies space, movement, pattern, design, texture, and colour, as well as lived experiences and self-reflection, as she critically examines the experiences that shape her everyday life and that of those around her. Despite being raised by American parents, Okoro’s Nigerian heritage is clearly evident in her work. “I was raised fully surrounded by American culture, raised by my American parents (mother and step-father). I connected with my Nigerian father as an adult, and then I began to learn about that side of my ancestry. I eventually visited the village my family is from in Nigeria. Through my art, I am sometimes calling back to and searching for my Nigerian side.”
Philippe Attié’s work is defined by the relationship between the realistic figure and the ground of gestural abstraction. Working primarily with acrylic and oil on canvas, he depicts his subjects meticulously in states of contemplation and repose. These subjects are enveloped by transparent layers of soft colour and hints of expressionist forms, representing their psychological state. It is an intuitive portrayal of the emotions, of sensuality, or of the wisdom of the figure, striving to capture facets of the human soul. Each work is infused with lightness, both in the technical luminosity of the pieces and in what they evoke in both subject and viewer. “The essence of my art lies in the depiction of the multitude of sensations and emotions that shape my interior landscape, as a way to portray that inner realm. I often use my surroundings, like someone in my family, a lover, a friend, and so on. It can also be an inspiring person encountered during a trip or a random stranger through whom I can see an ideal channel for what I want to convey.”
Patrick Earl Hammie
Patrick Earl Hammie is best known for his large-scale portrait and figurative paintings, which draw from art history and visual culture to examine cultural identity, social equity, and critical aspects of gender and race. His work is defined by his ongoing engagement with the history of painting. His use of scale, expression, and emotive subject matter recalls elements of the baroque and romantic periods. His interest is partly historical: he studies the pictorial, technical, and narrative conventions of art to explore the ways in which (primarily) male artists have imagined the body.
Considering such conventions in a contemporary context, Hammie delivers fresh ideals of the bodies of people of colour, which disturbs the existing canon and also normalises the presence of these groups in public art space and discourse. “I’m a descendant of enslaved people who were never expected or welcomed to use these tools of fine art; the technology wasn’t designed for me. This inconsideration is still prevalent: Kodak’s photo processes prioritised lighter skin, and Apple’s facial recognition software wasn’t optimised to recognise dark-skinned faces. For generations, my ancestors have hacked similar tools and innovated through them. The most dynamic strides towards representing darker skin in films like Selma and Moonlight occurred since the turn of the 21st century. Through oil painting, I hope to share my efforts to formally and conceptually challenge these traditions and inspire others to construct new narratives with the medium.”
Patrick Dougher is a self-taught artist, musician, poet, educator, and spiritual activist widely celebrated for his mixed-media collages and paintings. He has taught in New York City public schools and worked as an art therapist for HIV-positive children, and as the director of community arts organisations. Through his work, Dougher seeks to inspire and celebrate people of African descent and to connect urban African-American culture to its roots in sacred African art, spirituality, and ritual. “The way my work reflects and represents Blackness comes from the idea that I see Black people as the epitome of beauty and as being divine by nature. I want to focus on and highlight the beauty of our divinity.”
Born in 1989 in Brixton, London, T.S. Abe is an illustrator well known for her animated drawings. A graduate of Central Saint Martins University of the Arts, Abe’s drawings have appeared on several platforms, from album covers to exhibition walls and London buses. Often appearing in some of her drawings, Abe’s work comprises of graphically detailed moving portraits, figures, and in some cases, more abstract patterns.
“Even the bad is good in the right frame. I took up self-portraiture when puberty hit, probably an attempt to claw back some control over my image and identity. The habit stuck and making art has remained a solitary pursuit in that sense. Lately, I’m more aware of those reconstructive urges, and feel in kin with everyone—women in particular—desperately remaking themselves online. If humans are only ever having conversations with themselves, then self-portraiture is as short a distance between those points as you’re going to find.”
New York City-based artist, Tunji Adeniyi-Jones received his Bachelors in fine arts from Oxford University and his MFA in painting/printmaking from Yale School of Art. Born in England to Nigerian parents, Adeniyi-Jones has spent a great deal of time between London and Lagos. This cultural duality is at the core of his practice and through painting, sculpture, printmaking, and collage, he attempts to articulate the contemporary aesthetic of the African diaspora through the lens of European history.
“I am extremely proud of my Nigerian heritage and equally grateful for my British upbringing. The combination of these two cultures, each having its own rich and expansive art history, has influenced me from a very young age. Throughout my childhood, I was exposed to a vast array of West African sculpture and textiles, both in my household and during trips to Nigeria. This was instrumental to the development of my bright and vibrant colour palette.”
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