Just like African American writers, African American visual artists were not prevented from producing art but did find that their work was not valued in the same manner as European American artists.69 As a result, this limited opportunities for their work to be seen. To be recognized as “professionals,” they needed to simulate European artistic styles.70 Examples of visual artists who were considered successful include: Edward Mitchell Bannister, Robert Scott Duncanson, Meta Warrick Fuller, Joshua Johnston, Edmonia Lewis, and Henry Ossawa Tanner. Henry Ossawa Tanner was able to achieve recognition of poor blacks as subjects.
A 1913 Armory Show showcasing European cubist and modernist painters and the interest in African art forms opened doors for greater artistic expression in America. However, many African American artists felt interest in their work was in Europe and some were able to travel there to study. Emerging from artists demonstrated expressions of personal dignity and ethnic awareness period. Artists of this period include Palmer Hayden, Archibald Motley, Malvin Gray Johnson, William Edouard Scott, Meta Warrick Fuller, and Laura Wheeler Waring.
During the 1920s, after World War I, there was a growth of cultural activities and organizations in major American cities and the establishment of philanthropic foundations that supported both African American artists and art education programs. The Harlem Renaissance marked the first intense major activity by African Americans in the areas of music, literature and art.71 Artists began to assert new images of themselves and African Americans that defied the existing stereotypes of African Americans which in turn changed the image for others. Some of the artists of this time period include: Hughie Lee-Smith, Zell Ingram, Charles Sallee, Elmer William Brown, William E. Smith, and George E. Hulsinger.72 Aaron Douglas was considered the leading painter of this time period.
The WPA of the 1930s brought murals by African Americans to public buildings and exhibits in southern regions. Some of the artists whose works were featured included: Aaron Douglas, Augusta Savage, Charles Alston, Hale Woodruff, and Charles White, Richmond Barthe, Malvin Gray Johnson, Henry Bannarn, Florence V. Purviance, Hale Woodruff, Dox Thrash, Robert Blackburn, and Archibald Motley.73
African American culture represented through art was an important goal in the first three decades of the twentieth century. Collaborations in literature, music, theater, and art depicted America from its social and political lens increasing awareness of African American’s cultural heritage. World War II and the integration of the armed forces brought hope and a sense of urgency for equality in all facets of American life. Seeking greater cultural and professional opportunities, many blacks migrated from the South to urban areas in the North. Artists documenting this migration included: Romare Bearden, Beauford Delaney, Jacob Lawrence, and Hughie Lee-Smith.74
The 1940s and 1950s saw large numbers of African Americans being awarded degrees in art, as well as the continued studies in art both abroad and America, the end of World War II, and the beginning of the dismantling of Jim Crow segregation laws. While this period of social unrest unfolded, social and political expressions dominated African American art. However, while some African Americans thought it was imperative to “document, inspire, and champion the cause,” others believed social and political expressions should remain separate from art.75
The search for a black identity and the expression of militancy were the most pervasive themes of black art in the 1960s. Demanding political, social, and cultural recognition, and not satisfied with limited philanthropic support, African American artists looked for and developed alternative forms of exposure. In addition to the formation of galleries, community art centers, and galleries, art literally took to the streets “to meet with, appeal to, and celebrate the people.”76
The Black Arts Movement spanning over a decade from the founding of the Black Arts Repertory Theater School in Harlem in 1965 to the demise of the First World Magazine in Atlanta 1980. It emerged in conjunction with a radical shift in strategies and protocols of the black liberation strategy in America. It was a “cultural wing” to Black Power rhetoric and agenda. It sought to answer the question “What would a “black nation gained through revolutionary means” look like? It sought to develop a national culture and correct the mistakes of the Harlem Renaissance which did not include the myths and lifestyles of the black community.77 “Blackness” as a veritable liberation theology, “to be free to love Blackness” emerged. It sought to answer the questions, “Can art possess a “distinctive racial uniqueness?” and “Should an artist who is “phenotypically black” be compelled to devote herself to be an instrumentally revolutionary black cultural production-a functional art of the people?”78
In addition to murals inspired by Charles White and others, the 1970s saw the development of “wall graffiti” starting in New York City by black and brown teens expressing loyalty and pride or sometimes just the “tag” of the painter or colorful cartoon characters and flamboyant lettering. By the end of the 1970s and 1980s, graffiti gained popularity and acquired value in the art market. Jean-Michel Basquiat, is an example a street artist “extraordinaire” who was accepted and became an art “superstar” in the mainstream art world.79
By the 1990s mainstream museums across the country were sponsoring major exhibits of African American artists’ works or displaying collections and artifacts designed to appeal to black audiences. African American museums, who began in the 1960s still in existence include the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library, the Cinqué Gallery in New York, the Du Sable Museum in Chicago, the Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C., which transitioned to the Smithsonian Institution in 1984.80
Artists of the twenty-first century confront the issues of race, beauty, and identity pertaining to the individual and within the cultural landscape. Examples of these artists include Kara Walker, Lorna Simpson, Charles Bibbs, Synthia Saint James, Barbara Chase-Riboud, William T. Williams, Richard Hunt, Raymond Saunders, and Melvin Edwards, Betye Saar and Leah Gilman. Although not an exhaustive list, these artists and others create to reach not only local but global audiences.”81