Njideka Akunyili Crosby
Drawing on art historical, political and personal references, Njideka Akunyili Crosby creates densely layered figurative compositions that conjure the complexity of contemporary experience. Akunyili Crosby was born in Nigeria, where she lived until the age of sixteen. In 1999 she moved to the United States, where she has remained since that time. Her cultural distinctiveness combines strong attachments to the country of her birth and to her adopted home, a hybrid identity that is reflected in herwork.
Vibrantly patterned photo-collage areas are created from images derived from Nigerian pop culture and politics, including pictures of pop stars, models and celebrities, as well as lawyers in white wigs and military dictators. While the artist's formative years in Nigeria are a constant source of inspiration, Akunyili Crosby's grounding in Western art history adds further layers of reference. Religious art, the academic tradition of portraiture and, in particular, still life painting become vehicles for delivering new possible meanings. These are images necessarily complicated in order to counter generalisations about African or diasporic experience. Talking about her work, Akunyili Crosby notes, 'In much the same way that inhabitants of formerly colonised countries select and invent from cultural features transmitted to them by the dominant or metropolitan colonisers, I extrapolate from my training in Western painting to invent a new visual language that represents my experience - which at times feels paradoxically fractured and whole - as a cosmopolitan Nigerian.'
Born in Chicago in 1977, Rashid Johnson is among an influential cadre of contemporary American artists whose work employs a wide range of media to explore themes of art history, individual and shared cultural identities, personal narratives, literature, philosophy, materiality, and critical history. After studying in the photography department of the Art Institute of Chicago, Johnson’s practice quickly expanded to embrace a wide range of media –including sculpture, painting, drawing, filmmaking, and installation – yielding a complex multidisciplinary practice that incorporates diverse materials rich with symbolism and personal history.
Johnson’s work is known for its narrative embedding of a pointed range of everyday materials and objects, often associated with his childhood and frequently referencing collective aspects of African American intellectual history and cultural identity. To date, Johnson has incorporated items as diverse as CB radios, shea butter, literature, record covers, gilded rocks, black soap and tropical plants. Many of Johnson’s works convey rhythms of the occult and mystic: evoking his desire to transform and expand each included object’s field of association in the process of reception.
Kerry James Marshall
Kerry James Marshall is a contemporary painter whose work explores the complex effects of the Civil Rights movement on the everyday life on African Americans. Through narrative scenes that draw both from history and the artist’s own life, Marshall delves into obscure moments and objects important to contemporary and past black culture. His work is likewise concerned with the tradition of Western painting, and the notion of mastery, authorship, and the erasure of black bodies throughout art history. Hence,Marshall often exaggerates the colour of the people in his work making them as black as the pigment will allow, drawing more attention to the surrounding colour and content of his paintings.
Through its formal acuity, Kerry James Marshall’s work reveals and questions the social constructs of beauty, taste, and power. As the artist has written, ‘I gave up on the idea of making Art a long time ago, because I wanted to know how to make paintings; but once I came to know that, reconsidering the question of what Art is returned as a critical issue.’ Engaged in an ongoing dialogue with six centuries of representational painting, Marshall has deftly reinterpreted and updated its tropes, compositions, and styles, even pulling talismans from the canvases of his forbearers and recontextualizing them within a modern setting. At the center of his prodigious oeuvre, which also includes drawings and sculpture, is the critical recognition of the conditions of invisibility so long ascribed to black bodies in the Western pictorial tradition, and the creation of what he calls a ‘counter-archive’ that reinscribes these figures within its narrative arc.
David Hammons once commented that "outrageously magical things happen when you mess around with a symbol". For the past 50 years, Hammons has created a vocabulary of symbols from everyday life and messed around with them in the form of prints, drawings, performances, video, found-object sculptures, and paintings. Many of the results have indeed been outrageous, and most all of them have had a distinct kind of magic, derived from the transformation of everyday objects into allegories of the experience of the outsider in the contemporary world, whether an artist, a stranger, a madman, or, most persistently, a person of colour.
After relocating to New York in 1974, Hammons started his lifelong practice of making sculptures from the highly charged detritus of urban African American life, including hair gathered from barbershop floors, chicken bones, bottle caps, and empty liquor bottles. Many of his artworks are iconic examples of American Conceptual art. At the same time, they are sharply critical commentaries on the clichés of growing up African American in the US, from the nearly impossible aspiration of becoming a sports hero, to the danger of wearing everyday outfits that are somehow perceived as menacing.
From landmark actions like his Bliz-aard Ball Sale (1983), in which Hammons sold snowballs of different sizes on a New York City sidewalk, to his most recent paintings whose surfaces are obscured by tarpaulins, burlap, or old furniture, his work has contributed to an ongoing discussion about the role of the artist and the value of art. Reluctant to participate in exhibitions of his own work, Hammons has fiercely guarded his status as a cultural outsider, while simultaneously continuing to produce work that reinforces his reputation as one of the most relevant and influential living American artists.
Born and raised in the Bronx, Glenn Ligon grew up taking art classes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art while learning about identity politics through the racism and discrimination toward homosexuality that he encountered in New York. He combines this formal art education and complex personal history to create emotionally charged works that convey challenging messages. In his 1993 Whitney Biennial contribution, Notes on the Margin of the Black Book (1991–93),for example, Ligon paired images and text to satirically comment on literary and visual representations of the black male body. Whether constructed from neon lights, coal dust, glitter, paint, or photographs, Ligon’s work fluctuates between humour and startling honesty, reminding viewers that intolerance remains ubiquitous.
Known for his text-based paintings, prints, and sculptures. Ligon often explores ideas of sexuality, violence, and racial identity within American history through the intertextuality between literature and visual arts, sourcing material from both historical and invented texts. The artist’s signature hand-stenciled paintings and neon art sculptures, often portray a series of phrases that, when exhibited in the museum or gallery context, prompts the viewer to read them in a new way, such as in Double America (2012). He frequently appropriates text from well-known writers such as Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, Gertrude Stein, and Walt Whitman to tell visual stories of ambiguous and unsettling nature. “My job is not to produce answers,” he once explained. “My job is to produce good questions.”
“I start at the top and work down,” explains Stanley Whitney. “That gets into call-and-response. One colour calls forth another. Colour dictates the structure, not the other way round.” Whitney’s vibrant abstract paintings unlock the linear structure of the grid, imbuing it with new and unexpected cadences of colour, rhythm, and space. The cumulative effect of Whitney’s multicoloured palette is not only one of masterly pictorial balance and a sense of continuum with other works in this ongoing series, but also that of fizzing, formal sensations caused by internal conflicts and resolutions within each painting. Taking his cues from early Minimalism, Colour Field painters, jazz music and historical artists Whitney is as much an exponent of the process-based, spatially-gridded square in art as Josef Albers, Sol LeWitt, Agnes Martin and Carl Andre.
Deriving inspiration from sources as diverse as Piet Mondrian, Giorgio Morandi, and American quilt-making, Whitney composes with blocks and bars that articulate a chromatic call-and-response in each canvas. He has spent many years experimenting with the seemingly limitless potential of a single compositional method, loosely dividing square canvases into multiple registers. The thinly applied oil paint retains his active brushwork and allows for a degree of transparency and tension at the overlapping borders between each rectilinear parcel of vivid colour. In varying canvas sizes, he explores the shifting effects of his free hand geometries at both intimate and grand scales as he deftly lays down successive blocks of paint, heeding the call of each colour. Experimental jazz —CharlieParker, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman— is Whitney’s soundtrack, its defining improvisational method yielding ever new energies to his process of painting.
Working in a wide-ranging conceptual practice, Mark Bradford is best known for his multimedia abstract paintings whose laborious surfaces hint at the artist’s excavation of emotional and political terrain. “For me, it's always a detail—a detail that points to a larger thing,” he observed of his process. “I start to imagine what it points to, and that's when my imagination really goes.” Born in 1961 in Los Angeles, CA, Bradford studied at the California Institute of the Arts, graduating with an MFA in 1997. His work often displays the atrocities and struggles of race and poverty, as seen in his site-specific installation Help Us (2008). In the work, the artist displayed pieces of wood salvaged from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina on top of Los Angeles building, spelling out “HELP US,” recalling the desperation of hurricane survivors on New Orleans rooftops. In 2017, Bradford represented the United States pavilion at the Venice Biennale with his work Tomorrow is Another Day. He currently lives and works in Los Angeles,CA. Today, the artist’s works are held in the collections Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Tate Gallery in London, and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, among others.
In her exploration of race, stereotypes, gender, and identity throughout American history, Kara Walker is best known for her large-scale tableaux of collaged silhouettes amidst black-and-white pastoral landscapes. Often filled with brutal and harrowing imagery, Walker provocatively illustrates the country’s origins of slavery in the antebellum South. “I didn’t want a completely passive viewer. Art means too much to me. To be able to articulate something visually is really an important thing,” the artist explained. “I wanted to make work where the viewer wouldn’t walk away; he would giggle nervously, get pulled into history, into fiction, into something totally demeaning and possibly very beautiful.”
Her subjects, often scenes of slavery, conflict or violence, are rendered in a style recalling traditional African illustration and folklore of the pre-Civil War United States; the works preserve and draw critical attention to these earlier cultural epochs. Working in collage, Walker cuts out and affixes black or white paper directly to gallery walls, and utilizes light projectors to cast viewers’ own shadows into her silhouetted narratives, creating a deeply engaging experience. Despite the oftentimes sombre nature of her subjects, Walker relies on humour and viewer interaction.
The African American video artist and cinematographer Arthur Jafa is an enigmatic figure, who oozes coolness and style. His articulate, calm, and welcoming demeanor invites listeners into his thought process, a process shaped by a lifelong affinity for in depth research on black culture. His work assembles fragments of culture found in newspapers, magazines, videos he has filmed himself and many he has found online. He seeks to let the material speak for itself, and let the viewer determine their own thoughts and feelings and hopefully come to new resolutions. Though it is not Jaffa’s intention to preach or directly educate, he is a facilitator. He provides the visual platform for viewers to rethink the personal bias and prejudices that come up when they are faced with the work. In that, is the lasting transformation of cultural opinion. He is passionate about black representation in visual art and his work can be seen as a missing link in how black culture is represented and how it is received. Jafa’s work underlines just how crucial it has been to civil rights to turn the camera back upon the white gaze in order to make the world see, reflect, and believe, not just mindlessly consume.
Jafa was born in 1960 in Mississippi, his childhood classrooms being among the first integrated. He has an immediate awareness of the invasion of other people’s projections and implied perceptions on him and his blackness. He shares that, very early on, he was determined to break free of the “monolithic blackness” imposed on African Americans. That, though the black population of Mississippi were integrated, they were a collective “other”, and treated as such. Jafa’s professional career blossomed through working with cinematography in films, such as “Eyes Wide Shut” by Stanley Kubrick. He is also famous for directing music videos and art centric documentaries for Jay-Z, Solange Knowles, Beyoncé, and Spike Lee. However, to focus solely on this aspect of his career, is to feed into the concept of monolithic blackness he tries to confront.
Spanning painting, performance, video and writing, Adam Pendleton's (b. 1984) practice is profoundly eclectic and critical. The artist engages with problematics inherent to mechanisms of representation, delving into language, abstraction and the notion of “blackness”. Working predominantly in black and white, Pendleton unpicks and deconstructs dominant historical, political, socio-cultural and aesthetic discourses, putting forward alternative narratives. Within his own concept of "Black Dada", the artist investigates the past in order to “imagine alternate presents”. Relying on appropriation, Pendleton creates works merge references ranging from Dadaism to the Black Arts Movement.