Staff Favorites : African Americans Visual Artists and Painters 

Written by Yohan Smith, OPL Library Aide at the Rockridge Branch, SFMOMA Museum Guide, and SFMOMA Volunteer Librarian 

When Possible: Lift the Spirit of Humanity (Through the Arts): Do Not Reflect the Challenges of the World Around You.

~Marina Abramovic, as heard on Amanpour and Friends, December 12, 2023. 

This is my third year blogging for Black History Month, I hope you enjoy it. It is timely given this year’s annual theme is “the Arts”. The list is not in order from 1 to 9 in terms of any of my favorites. I have chosen to list numerous artists whose work is personally intriguing to me and for whom I am interested in further exploring in the future.

1. Kehinde Wiley (born 1977, resides in Los Angeles)  

Kehinde Barack Obama
Former President Barack Obama by Kehinde Wiley
two sisters
by Kehinde Wiley

Check out Kehinde's books in the OPL's collections.
Borrow Kehinde's books through Link+  

I first discovered his work at SFMOMA before the pandemic in 2019. And I really enjoyed his film, An Economy of Grace, opens a new window in which he creates portraits/paintings of 3 to 5 female residents of Harlem, New York. 

Most recently he has grappled with structural racism that African Americans face through his exhibition: An Archaeology of Silence, opens a new window (March 18 to October 15, 2023) at the De Young  museum. These sculptures created during the pandemic are connected to the history of art and to slavery and include portraits of African Americans in an array of challenging positions and images. Many of the images appear to be in pain from the impact and consequences of slavery, brutality, and the unjust economic system of the past and present. 

He created a portrait of former President Obama (2018) that is unique and inspiring.

2. Mike Henderson (born 1943 and resides in the Bay Area) 

American flag art
Mike Henderson, “Love it or Leave it, I Will Love it if You Leave it, 1976.” Mixed media, 69 × 108 in. © Mike Henderson. (Courtesy of the artist and Haines Gallery. Photo by Robert Divers Herrick).

Read Mike's San Francisco Chronicle article.
Check out Mike's Link+ Books

As a long-time Bay area artist/painter and filmmaker, who has created art for 50 years and taught at UC Davis for four decades, his most recent exhibition on the campus featured many of his social justice paintings, films, and video of his own music. I enjoyed reading an extensive article on the cover of the SF Chronicle’s Pink section about him which helps put his long career in perspective (Mike Henderson: Before the Fire, opens a new window, 1965-1985: July 2 to 8, 2023).  

I heard him speak at his campus opening (in January of 2023 at the Manetti Shrem UC Davis Museum) retrospective and listened intently and learned about his motivation first to travel from Missouri as a youth to study at the San Francisco Art Institute (they were one of few art schools of the time to allow Black students to apply and attend). He also spoke about his political activism in the 1960’s living in San Francisco and his passion for art and film, and about his experiences teaching students while working alongside other famous artists such as Wayne Thiebaud, Robert Arneson, and William Wiley.  

3. Glenn Ligon (born 1960)

Borrow Glenn's books through Link +.

I really enjoy how Glenn incorporates language and graphic design in his work. 

My favorite is the Million Man March painting that illustrates a history making event in Washington D.C. in 1995 and captures verbal signs connected to the artist’s vision of the event. He creates and uses abstract works too that symbolize social justice and commentary about how the black community can strive to improve and become more inclusive. 


4. Amy Sherald (born 1973)

Find Amy's books in the OPL's collections.

I recently discovered her work via the DeYoung Museum’s Presidential portrait tour of former President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.

The detailed description and accompanying film were insightful and created a context for the skills and experiences of Ms. Sherald. I look forward to exploring her other paintings.  

5. Sadie Barnette (born 1984 and lives in Oakland)

Bay Area Walls
Sadie Barnette: SPACE/TIME (2022)

Sadies' books in the OPL collection.
Sadies' Link + books.       

Sadie Barnette is a local artist. I discovered her work at the UC Davis Manetti Shrem Exhibition of Young, Gifted, and Black: a New Generation of Artists: The Lumpkin-Bocuzzi Family Collection of Contemporary Art. 

Sadie had a conceptual work that showed a few pages of a CIA or FBI dossier of her father (who was a Black Panther) in the 1960’s. She also has a mural at SFMOMA entitled Bay Area Walls Commission (October 15, 2022 to June 2024) which is very insightful, personal, and speaks to local and family Bay area connections.

The exhibition can be viewed on the 5th Floor of the SFMOMA while open. 

6. Alison Saar (born 1956 lives and resides in Los Angeles)

Alison Saar – LOST AND FOUND
LOST AND FOUND - wood, tin, and wire

Find Alison's books in the OPL collection.
Check out Alison's Link Plus books. 

I discovered Alison Saar's sculpture at the SFMOMA - a goddess as part of an exhibition related to the South Central Los Angeles 1960’s riots. Almost all of the artists used material found after the uprisings. Rodney Hammons, Alison’s mother, Betye Saar, and other artists created paintings and sculptures that are connected to social unrest that has occurred in the Black community. While her mother is a well-known community art pioneer, Alison has created unique sculptures for multiple decades and into the present.   

7. Dawoud Bey (born 1953)

Dawoud Bey photography
Dawoud Bey

Dawoud's books in the OPL collection.

Dawoud Bey's combination of black and white and color photos set the scene for his connection with students he teaches in the Midwest and historical civil rights moments in the South. 

The four decade retrospective exhibition at SFMOMA, Dawoud Bey: An American Project , opens a new window(Feb 15, 2020 to Oct 12, 2020, opens a new window) provided a context and performance film revisiting the Birmingham church bombing in 1963 and street photos taken in Harlem and other New York neighborhoods. 

Dawoud also creates large scale Polaroid images that were part of the exhibition. 

8. Gregory Rick (born 1981 in Minneapolis and lives in Oakland) 

Purple Rain 2021
Gregory Rick | Purple Rain | 2021

Gregory's artist profile

Gregory Rick is one of four recent award winners of the SFMOMA SECA (Society for the Encouragement of Contemporary Art) local Artist award (2022). His paintings relate to contemporary graphic novels and Black Lives Matter protests.  

He also imagined what it would be like if those protests occurred in Beverly Hills (Burning Beverly, 2022, opens a new window). Rick created a work entitled Purple Rain which has a purple color that is apparent throughout the painting and speaks to the collective protests of 2020. The piece could also be viewed as a tribute to his fellow hometown artist Prince.

Rick grew up in Minneapolis: where George Floyd was murdered and has shared personal memories of challenges with police in his hometown. He served in the U.S. military and some of his work represents/signifies the connection between US military and local police power. Whenever military symbolism is in his paintings, it has specific and resonant meaning.

9. Wilfredo Lam (1902 -1982, born in Cuba) 

Wilfredo's books in the OPL collection.
Borrow Wilfredo's books through Link+.

Wifredo Óscar de la Concepción Lam y Castilla, better known as Wifredo Lam, was a Cuban artist who sought to portray and revive the enduring Afro-Cuban spirit and culture. While he is Cuban, his long and distinguished career and painting the Oracle and the Green Bird (1947) is one of my favorites at SFMOMA.

He created paintings and captured the spirit of Afro-Cuban culture in many of his works. They include spiritual and male/female references to Afro Cuban culture and to his family roots. One of his family members studied Santeria: a Cuban spiritual practice. He was one of the most well known and prolific artists of the 20th century.