Evolution of African American Art

African Americans sold in the early slave markets of the New World were brought mostly from West Africa where the arts & crafts were highly developed.  Their languages were articulated with such controlled variations of tones and timing that spoken words could easily be made into songs, which gained rhythm from measured repetition.  This universal folk-device can still be recognized in the blues and in spirituals.

Wood-carvers, banterers, and metalworkers supplied the necessary images, totem animals and other objects.  Weavers and designers of applique dressed the gods in fine clothes by making special costumes required for cult ceremonies.  Thus, the products of visual arts were universal in tribal life.

In tracing the antecedents of American art, conventional art histories focus on Egypt, then move northward and eastward through Mesopotamia, Crete, Greece, then to Rome, England, and to America.  This was one way through which art influences reached this country, however there were also numerous contributions made by sub-Sahara Africa. One cannot fully understand his or her present, nor control his future, without knowing something about his or her past.  As history ignores it, except in the areas of music and the performing arts / entertainment, African Americans remain still largely unaware of their black artistic ancestral heritage.  Marcus Garvey once said, “A people without knowledge of its past, is like a tree like roots”

17th century map 

17th century map depicting the locations of the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea.

The African interior remained the ‘Dark Continent’ until the twentieth century, as much was unexplored or unknown by Europeans.  The Christian missions and colonists that followed exploration encouraged a condescending attitude toward African culture and did nothing to change popular misconceptions about the continent.

It was not until in recent years that the long history and culture of black Africa began to be realized.  Early travelers accounts had given hints of the fabulous luxury of African kingdoms such as ancient Ghana, but few people read about them.  Learning and culture were kept alive in Africa while Europe was obscured in its Dark Ages.  While the Atlantic slave trade and later colonialism would bring a cultural eclipse to Africa, there were many highly developed cultures that compared favorably with those of Europe at that time.

Until the nineteenth century, most people believed that the African American had no past worth mentioning.  His ancestors came from such scattered parts of Africa that none of his cultural inheritance could have survived.  Anthropologist Melville J. Herskovits, who called this misconception the “Myth of the Negro past”, did much to dispel it in his book of the same name.  African American scholars such as Dr. W.E.B. Dubois, Dr. Carter G. Woodson, and Dr. John Hope Franklin also helped to shed light on the African American past.  In the case of Dr. Carter Woodson, he gave us a week that evolved into a month, in which we celebrate black history.

When discussing the cultural traditions brought to this country by African Americans, we must consider the area from which they came.  This region was a narrow strip of Atlantic coastline extending from the Senegal River on the north to the southern desert, called the Guinea Coast in the west.  The African interior also played a minor role in the slave trade though the greatest distance inland from which slaves were brought has been estimated as few hundred miles.  A ready supply of slaves was conveniently located close to the west coast and as a consequence, most slaves did not reach America via ports in the east coast of Africa.  

The Periplus of the Erythaean Sea 

The Periplus of the Erythaean Sea 

The earliest firsthand report of this comes from a Greek mariners guide, “The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea” written about 60 A.D.   From this and other evidence we are told such east coast trading centers as Pemba and Kilwa Islands, traded mainly with eastern markets from the Red Sea to China and Ceylon.  The essence of the Periplus was a focus was that a direct sailing route from the Red Sea to India across the open ocean, was in fact discovered by Hippalus (1st century BC).  The records show that during the slave trade, slaves were never a major item of export along this coast until the brief but bloody Arab slave trade from Zanzibar in the nineteenth century.  Because of the international treaty banning the slave, many slavers from Europe or America sailed around the Cape of Good Hope to avoid men of war patrolling the Guinea Coast.  This was so late in the history of the Atlantic slave trade that the number of east coast slaves involved was small.

Although few Africans were spared some tribute of slaves, it is to the west coast that we look for the major cultural contributions to America. This geographical distinction is extremely important when we consider the artistic achievements of African-Americans.  The region from which most black slaves were brought was one in which the artist-craftsmen were highly regarded and where some of the worlds finest art was produced, including figure sculpture which has made African art famous.

Transplanted to America, the African had less opportunity and motivation for artistic expression.  Deprived of god and king, their art no longer served the world of the spirit and they had to be content with serving man.  They did this with skill and with as much creativity as was possible within restrictive bonds of slavery.  They were aided by the fact that in Africa their works of art had been bound by traditional patterns and rules.  They were accustomed to finding individual ways of expressing themselves within bounds.

Although the craftsperson was stripped of his physical possessions and cultural content, he or she would not be stripped of their talent.  They carried with them, their expert skills and artist sensitivity.  Most importantly, they carried his capacity to adapt to changing circumstances.  This was a trait that resulted in the development of new motives for artistic expressions.  

Art objects such as masks and figure sculpture served religious and social needs of African societies.  This need was no longer present in the West-oriented society of the New World. However, creating handicrafts that served a utilitarian purpose was the most common route to creativity open to African American artisan.  Although this was a creative outlet, creating these utilitarian handicrafts denied the African-American artisan an important emotional and spiritual means of expression.  Over centuries in the past, the African excelled in producing beautiful functional articles for his own use or trade.

The pre-industrial culture to which the African was first introduced in America held the expert craftsman in great respect.  Because of the difficulty of importing goods from Europe, agrarian America depended on locally made utilitarian objects.  Everything was needed and needed quickly.  The well-trained and highly skilled African craftsmen worked side-by-side with his European counterparts in satisfying that demand.

Although this new culture was alien to the African slave, the work was familiar because the materials available for artistic expression were often identical to those he used in Africa - wood, metal, natural fibers, animal products, and clay, and many of the old-country techniques could be applied without making changes.  The African artist-craftsman also assimilated European ideas and techniques and melded them with those of his forefathers.  During the period between the 17th and the early 19th centuries, art took the form of small drums, quilts, wrought-iron figures, and ceramic vessels in the America south, with many similarities with comparable crafts in West and Central Africa

The process of creative synthesis continued in America as it had across the ocean, where the African began to borrow much from other cultures.  He borrowed from conqueror and conquered, and from new neighbors or traders, as well as from ancestors.  He also began to invent his own artistic styles and creations.  

As early as the eighteenth century records show African Americans, both slaves and free men, worked in the fields of painting, woodcarving, gold or silversmithing, engraving or wood-block printing.   Although, these vocations were regarded as functional at the time, they offered more scope for the creative talents of the artist-craftsman than they did making of articles for use for the plantation.

As the nineteenth century wore on, more African Americans became distinguished painters and sculptors.  However few achieved the recognition or acceptance that they deserved, due to racial bias.  Some were so embittered by racism that they became expatriates in places like Paris, Canada, and other parts of Europe.  Despite difficulties encountered by all artists everywhere and the additional handicap of racism, many succeeded to a remarkable degree.

Henry Ossawa Tanner - Moroccan Man 

Henry Ossawa Tanner - Moroccan Man

The works of these artists followed the mainstream of art.  At first, it was somewhat stiff and formal and later over-sentimentalized.  This reflected the trend of the times, which turned from eighteenth-century formality to nineteenth-century Romanticism in reaction to the ugliness produced by the Industrial Revolution.  The trend toward realism that developed near the end of the nineteenth century started to bring out the individuality of the African-American artist as he turned to subjects close at hand.

The racial pride started by the New Negro movement of the 1920s produced an exciting collection of African-American art.  The black artist discovered, through it, greater pride of race and accomplishment.  The black artist also began to achieve the recognition he so rightfully deserved.  Today the African-American is producing work in every field of art, out of various materials from junk to electronic equipment, and with many styles and techniques.  More and more black artists of all backgrounds are producing beautiful, sophisticated, contemporary art in a variety of media and making rich contributions to the field of functional art.

 Joshua Johnson - Six Children With Their Dog And Doll

Joshua Johnson - Six Children With Their Dog And Doll

It is necessary to gain an understanding of African- Americans background in order to fully appreciate the valuable contributions made by the black artists to the American culture.

In the early days of American painting, many artists were self-taught, which may account for the variety and freshness of their work.  African-American artists tried to express a message of lasting interest that grew out of their American experience.  It is because each artist’s personal experience differed from the others, that their works have an individual character that is best understood and appreciated when we learn something of the varied lives of the artists.  

African-American artists had to depend on the enlightened attitudes of a few individuals until patrons of abolitionist groups and the Freedman’s Bureau gained prominence in the nineteenth century.  Even the talented free African-Americans were subject to all the legal restrictions and social disgrace associated with the slave system.  In order to justify the system, European colonists had rationalized that by nature, temperament, pigmentation, and civilization, the African-Americans’ natural lot was slavery, which made them not fit for anything else, including art.

During colonial days the African-American artist was regarded as something of a curiosity. Since nineteenth-century colonists regarded art as the ultimate expression of a civilized people, the African-American artist who identified himself with the creative arts was supposedly making a false claim.  A few African-Americans of outstanding drive and abilities, managed to become artists in spite of the odds.  Scipio Moorhead and Joshua Johnson have left their work as evidence.  They came from all walks of life and different parts of the United States.  Engraver Scipio Moorhead was a slave in New England while Johnson was a free black in New Orleans and later Baltimore portrait painter, yet both created art that was conceived in a western European fashion for their local markets.

 Portrait of Scipio Moorhead

Portrait of Scipio Moorhead, Portrait of Himself, 1776 (Study), 2007, acrylic and ink on paper, Collection of Dr. Daniel S. Berger

An advertisement from a Boston newspaper was typical of the scanty information found about the majority of African-American artists before the twentieth century:

“Negro artist.  At McLean’s Watch-maker, near Town-Hall, is a Negro man, whose extraordinary genius has been assisted by one of the best Masters in London; he takes faces at the lowest rates. 

What was the name of this extraordinary genius?  How did he manage to obtain an art education in London?  Where are his paintings now?  The artist mentioned in the ad must have been an exceptional African American because few of his race, had the advantage to study in Europe.  Most were self-taught or had received limited instruction from a patron.  GW HobbsWilliam SimpsonRobert M. Douglas JrPatrick H. ReasonJoshua Johnson, and Scipio Moorhead were among the earliest known portrait artists, from the period of 1773–1887.

Harriet Powers 1837–1910 was an African American folk artist and quilt maker from rural Georgia, born into slavery.  Now nationally recognized for her quilts, she used traditional appliqué techniques to record local legends, Bible stories, and astronomical events on her quilts.  Only two of her late quilts have survived: Bible Quilt 1886 and Bible Quilt 1898.  Her quilts are considered among the finest examples of 19th-century Southern quilting.  Like Powers, the women of Gee's Bend developed a distinctive, bold, and sophisticated quilting style based on traditional American (and African American) quilts, but with a geometric simplicity.  Although widely separated by geography, the quilts have qualities reminiscent of Amish quilts and modern art. The women of Gee's Bend passed their skills and aesthetic down through at least six generations to the present.  At one time scholars believed slaves sometimes utilized quilt blocks to alert other slaves about escape plans during the time of the Underground RailroadQuilting remains alive as form of artistic expression in the African-American community.

Bible quilt by Harriet Powers 

“Bible quilt”, by Harriet Powers.

Another artist was G.W. Hobbs, a Methodist Minister who lived in Baltimore around 1784.  It is possible that he painted the pastel portrait of Richard Allen, the first bishop of the African Methodist Church. Later, under the leadership of Bishop Daniel Payne, this church became a patron of the arts and did much to encourage talented young African-Americans.

More documentation is available in the nineteenth century on African-American art compared to the colonial period.  However, there are still gaps.  The work of Robert M. Douglas, Jr. is an example.  There is much that is known about his life, however his art has completely vanished.  Portraits painted by two African-American artisans named Vidal and Wilson were exhibited in Philadelphia in 1852.  They are mentioned as being very creditable.

Three other Philadelphia artists were known about the same time as Douglass: William H. Dorsey, John P. Burr, and J.G. Chaplin.  Few examples of their work have survived.  In addition, the merits of Nelson Primus, A.B. Wilson and Gerritt Loguen remain unknown because few of their works can be found.  One black painter, Alexander Pickhil of New Orleans, destroyed nearly all his work in disgust over adverse criticism.

Portrait of Lizzie May Ulmer 1876 by Nelson A Primus 

Portrait of Lizzie May Ulmer, 1876, by Nelson A Primus

After the Civil War, it became increasingly acceptable for African American created works to be exhibited in museums, and artists increasingly produced works for this purpose. These were works mostly in the European romantic and classical traditions of landscapes and portraits.  Edward Mitchell BannisterHenry Ossawa Tanner and Edmonia Lewis are the most notable of this time.  Others include Grafton Tyler BrownNelson A. Primus and Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller.  The goal of widespread recognition across racial boundaries was first eased within America's big cities, including PhiladelphiaBostonChicagoNew York, and New Orleans.  Even in these places, however, there were discriminatory limitations.  Abroad, however, African Americans were much better received.  

 Talking Skull by Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller

"Talking Skull" by Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller

In Europe — especially Paris, France — these artists could express much more freedom in experimentation and education concerning techniques outside of traditional western art.  Freedom of expression was much more prevalent in Paris as well as Munich and Rome to a lesser extent.  Tanner was awarded the French Legion of Honor and was the first African-American to be elected a full member of the National Academy of Design in America.

Self-taught painters and sculptors, or folk artists, turned out work that is called primitive because of its lack of professional technique. However, technical excellence in these artistic efforts is more than compensated for by their fresh and original approach and the variety and interest of the subject matter.  There is a painting of a horse on one wall, at Stratford Hall, in Virginia, which according to the legend, was done by a slave girl.  No one knows her name or the circumstances in which it was painted.  Also Harley, a slave in South Carolina, was moved to paint the battle of Fort Sumter. And he did a watercolor of the interior of the fort with its neat rows of quarters.

Two runaway slaves also turned their hands to painting.  One, whose name is not known, painted a small oil portrait of A Banjo Player as a gift for the man who helped him escape. Joe, a runaway slave who was employed as a handyman and clerk in a grocery store in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, painted a portrait of the grocer’s small daughter and son after his escape.

There may be countless examples of work by African-American painters hanging unnoticed in private collections throughout the country.  If only they could be recorded and made available to experts for study, many more unidentified African-American artists might be discovered.

J. Hall Pleasants produced enough clues to identify Joshua Johnson’s work.  As a result, numbers of unknown examples of art works were discovered.  A painting by David Bustill, the nineteenth-century African-American artist, was recently identified from a photograph. This picture which, had been clearly signed and dated, laid unnoticed in a National Park Service museum.  Park Service officials valued it for its subject matter and knew nothing of Bustill except that he was a Negro.

One untapped source of African-American art maybe the family portraits owned by African-Americans.  Cedric Dover recognized that such paintings should be sought and studied.  He believed them to be numerous and cited the Metoyer portraits at Melrose in Natchitoches, Mississippi, as examples.  One is signed by Feuville but whether he was a Frenchman or an African-American is not known.  The other two are unsigned.

The Harlem Renaissance to Contemporary art 

Sand Dunes at Sunset Atlantic City by Henry Ossawa Tanner  

Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City by Henry Ossawa Tanner is in the collection of the White House, and hangs in the Green Room. Acquired during the Clinton administration with funds from the White House Acquisition Trust, it is the first artwork in the White House by an African American.

In the early part of the 20th century, The Harlem Renaissance was one of the most notable movements in African-American art.  Certain freedoms and ideas that were already widespread in many parts of the world at the time had begun to spread into the artistic communities United States during the 1920s. 

Palmer Hayden The Dress She Wore Was Blue 1944 

Palmer Hayden (American artist, 1890-1973) The Dress She Wore Was Blue 1944

During this period notable artists included Richmond BarthéAaron Douglas, janitor turned painter, Lawrence Harris, Palmer Hayden, William H. Johnson, Sargent JohnsonJohn T. BiggersEarle Wilton RichardsonMalvin Gray JohnsonArchibald MotleyAugusta SavageHale Woodruff, and James Van Der Zee.

W.E.B. Du Bois frequently promoted African-American artistic creativity in his writings, and when the Harlem Renaissance emerged in the mid 1920s, his article "A Negro Art Renaissance" celebrated the end of the long hiatus of blacks from creative endeavors.  His enthusiasm for the Harlem Renaissance waned as he came to believe that many whites visited Harlem for voyeurism, not for genuine appreciation of black art.  Du Bois insisted that artists recognize their moral responsibilities, writing that, "A black artist is first of all a black artist."   He was also concerned that black artists were not using their art to promote black causes, saying, "I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda.”  By the end of 1926, he stopped employing The Crisis to support the arts.

The establishment of the Harmon Foundation by art patron William E. Harmon in 1922 sponsored many artists through its Harmon Award and annual exhibitions.  As it did with many such endeavors, the 1929 Great Depression largely ended funding for the arts for a time and the Harmon Foundation’s financial support toward artists ended.  The Harmon Foundation, however, continued supporting artists until 1967 by mounting exhibitions and offering funding for developing artists such as Jacob Lawrence.

Midnight Golfer by Eugene J Martin 

Midnight Golfer by Eugene J. Martin, mixed media collage on rag paper.

The US Treasury Department's Public Works of Art Project ineffectively attempted to provide support for artists in 1933.  In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The WPA provided for all American artists and proved especially helpful to African American artists.  Artists and writers both gained work that helped them survive the Depression.  Among them were Jacob Lawrence and Richard Wright.  Politics, human and social conditions all became the subjects of accepted art forms.  Important cities with significant black populations and important African-American art circles included Philadelphia, Boston, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.  The WPA led to a new wave of important black art professors.  Mixed media, abstract art, cubism, and social realism became not only acceptable, but also became desirable.  Artists of the WPA united to form the 1935 Harlem Artists' Guild, which developed community art facilities in major cities.  Leading forms of art included drawing, sculpture, printmaking, painting, pottery, quilting, weaving and photography and by 1939, the WPA and its projects all were terminated as it became too costly.

Beautiful Florida by Highwaymen Artist RL Lewis Jr 

Beautiful Florida by Highwaymen Artist R.L. Lewis, Jr.

In 1943, James A. Porter, a professor in the Department of Art at Howard University, wrote the first major text on African-American art and artists, “Modern Negro Art”.  In the 1950s and 1960s, few African-American artists were widely known or accepted.  Despite this, The Highwaymen, a loose association of 26 African American artists from Ft. Pierce, Florida, created idyllic, quickly realized images of the Florida landscape and peddled some 200,000 of them from the trunks of their cars.  In the 1950s and 1960s, it was impossible to find galleries interested in selling artworks by a group of unknown, self-taught African Americans, so they sold their art directly to the public rather than through galleries and art agents.  Rediscovered in the mid-1990s, today they are recognized as an important part of American folk history.

The current market price for an original Highwaymen painting can easily bring in thousands of dollars.  In 2004 the original group of 26 Highwaymen were inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame.  Currently 8 of the 26 are deceased, including A. Hair, H. Newton, Ellis and George Buckner, A. Moran, L. Roberts, Hezekiah Baker, and most recently Johnny Daniels. The full list of 26 can be found in the Florida Artists Hall of Fame, as well as various highwaymen and Florida art websites.

Jerry Harris Dogon mother and child 

Jerry Harris, Dogon mother and child, constructed and carved wood with found objects, laminated clay (Bondo), and wooden dowels.

After the Second World War, some artists took a global approach, working and exhibiting abroad, in Paris, and as the decade wore on, relocated gradually in other welcoming cities like Copenhagen, Amsterdam, and Stockholm: Barbara Chase-RiboudEdward ClarkHarvey CropperBeauford DelaneyHerbert GentryBill HutsonClifford Jackson, Sam MiddletonLarry PotterHaywood Bill RiversMerton Simpson, and Walter Williams are among the most well-known.

 Blue Force by Ed Clarke

Blue Force by Ed Clarke 

By the 1950s and 1960s, some African-American artists did make it in to important New York galleries: Horace PippinRomare BeardenJacob LawrenceWilliam T. Williams, Norman Lewis Thomas Sills, and Sam Gilliam were among the few who had successfully been received in a gallery setting.  The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and 1970s led artists to capture and express the times and changes.  Galleries and community art centers developed for the purpose of displaying African-American art, and collegiate teaching positions were created by and for African-American artists. 

By the 1980s and 1990s, hip hop graffiti became predominate in urban communities while most major cities had developed museums devoted to African American artists with The National Endowment for the Arts providing increasing support for these artists.  Important collections of African-American art include the Walter O. Evans Collection of African American Art, the Paul R. Jones collections at the University of Delaware and University of Alabama, the David C. Driskell Art collection, the Harmon and Harriet Kelley Collection of African American Art, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and the Mott-Warsh collection. 

Kara Walker Cut  Cut paper and adhesive on wall Brent Sikkema NYC 

Kara Walker, Cut, Cut paper and adhesive on wall, Brent Sikkema NYC.

Kara Walker, a contemporary American artist, is known for her exploration of race, gender, sexuality, violence and identity in her artworks.  Walker's silhouette images work to bridge unfinished folklore in the Antebellum South and are reminiscent of the earlier work of Harriet Powers.  Her nightmarish yet fantastical images incorporate a cinematic feel. In 2007, Walker was listed among Time Magazines "100 Most Influential People in The World, Artists and Entertainers".

Textile artists are part of African American art history. According to the 2010 Quilting in America industry survey, there are some 1.6 million quilters in the United States.  The artist profiled here are only a small sample of great African American artist.  Please take the time to familiarize yourself with the works of other influential contemporary artists include Larry D. Alexander, Laylah Ali, Amalia AmakiEmma AmosJean-Michel BasquiatDawoud BeyCamille BillopsMark BradfordEdward ClarkWillie ColeRobert ColescottLouis DelsarteDavid C. DriskellLeonardo DrewMel EdwardsRicardo Francis, Charles Gaines, Ellen GallagherHerbert GentrySam GilliamDavid HammonsJerry HarrisRichard Hunt, Martha Jackson-JarvisKatie S. MalloryM. Scott JohnsonRashid JohnsonJoe LewisGlenn LigonJames LittleAl LovingKerry James MarshallEugene J. Martin, Richard Mayhew, Sam Middleton, Howard McCalebbCharles McGillThaddeus Mosley, Sana Musasama, Senga Nengudi, Joe OverstreetMartin PuryearAdrian PiperHowardena PindellFaith RinggoldGale Fulton RossAlison Saar, Betye SaarRaymond SaundersJohn T. ScottJoyce ScottGary SimmonsLorna SimpsonRenee StoutKara WalkerCarrie Mae WeemsStanley WhitneyWilliam T. Williams, John Wilson, Fred Wilson, Paris-based Ealy Mays, Richard Yarde, and Purvis YoungKehinde WileyMickalene ThomasBarkley HendricksJeff SonhouseWilliam WalkerEllsworth AusbyChe BarakaEmmett WigglesworthOtto NealsDinga McCannon, Terry Dixon, and many others.



Ethnic Art History brought to you by Paris-based African American artist Ealy Mays



  1. oMillion African American Quilters: Survey, Sites, and a Half-Dozen Art Quilt Blocks, by Kyra E. Hicks (2010)

Welcome to Ealy Mays Artworks

Celebration of over 150 years of Black Literary and Artistic development in Paris

Here you will find the works of one of the most prolific African American artists. Based in Paris, France, this selection includes current masterpieces as well retrospectives from a body of over 30 years as an ethnic artist painting in the United States, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Europe. Your choice of paintings, prints, posters, postcards, puzzles, memorabilia, T-shirts, collectibles, accessories,and more, is only a click away. Read more

It is the spectator and not life, that really mirrors art”  The Picture of Dorian Gray …Oscar Wilde

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