What Is African American Art History?

African American art history is a rich and complex subject that encompasses the vast array of artistic expressions created by African American artists throughout history. It is a testament to the creativity, resilience, and cultural heritage of African Americans, who have made significant contributions to the world of art despite facing tremendous challenges and obstacles.

The Origins of African American Art History

The origins of African American art history can be traced back to the 19th century when black artists began to emerge in America. Many of these artists were self-taught and created works that were deeply rooted in their cultural experiences. They often used their art as a means of expressing their struggles with racism, discrimination, and oppression.

One of the earliest known African American artists was Joshua Johnson, who was active in Baltimore during the late 18th century. Johnson was a portrait painter who created works that depicted both white and black subjects. His paintings often featured bold colors and intricate details that captured the personalities and emotions of his subjects.

Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance was a pivotal moment in African American art history that took place during the 1920s and 1930s. It was a time when black artists, writers, musicians, and intellectuals gathered in Harlem to celebrate their culture and express their creativity.

During this period, many groundbreaking artists emerged, including Aaron Douglas, Augusta Savage, Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, and many others. These artists created works that were deeply influenced by their experiences as black Americans. They infused their art with themes such as identity, community, struggle, resistance, and pride.

African American Art Today

Today, African American art continues to thrive and evolve. Many contemporary black artists are creating works that challenge traditional notions of race and identity while exploring new forms of artistic expression.

Kehinde Wiley is one such artist whose work has gained international recognition for its unique style that blends traditional portraiture with contemporary pop culture. His paintings feature black men and women in classical poses, dressed in modern clothing, and surrounded by vibrant patterns and colors.

Another prominent artist is Kara Walker, who creates large-scale installations that explore the history of slavery and its impact on American society. Her works often feature Silhouettes of black figures that are both whimsical and haunting, evoking a range of emotions and reactions from viewers.


In conclusion, African American art history is a fascinating subject that encompasses centuries of artistic expression by black artists. From its origins in the 18th century to the Harlem Renaissance to the present day, African American art has played a critical role in shaping America’s cultural landscape. It is an important reminder of the resilience and creativity of African Americans in the face of adversity.