whm: contemporary portraits by black women artists

March 19, 2019
241 Picks

For women’s history month, we wanted to shout out a few contemporary Black women artists working in and around portraiture. These artists consistently embrace fiction as a strategy to deconstruct, reconstruct and invent visual narratives. Co-opting the reigns of the collective consciousness, they move as a cohort,  like a tsunami, obliterating one-dimensional conceptions of personhood.

Each of them have their own approach in both form and function: LaToya Ruby Frazier creates social documents that insert marginalized stories into humanistic conversations. Mickalene Thomas imagines bejeweled and bedazzled women languorously lounging in their own Edens. Carrie Mae Weems embodies an iconic everyday woman returning the gaze. Deana Lawson constructs scenes that amplify individual stories cast with around-the-way actors. Jordan Casteel and Jennifer Packer use paint to create figurative gestures that embrace the layered energies of intimacy and ease. Toyin Ojih Odutola imagines infinite iterations of blackness, both ephemeral and socially constructed. Lynette Yiadom-Boakye projects the interiority of imaginary people. And Renee Cox investigates super-cosmic-womanhood.

These women boldly transform visual culture through the power of self-representation. If you aren’t already familiar with their work, get to know it.

Jennifer Packer, "Jess" (2018)

The expressionist paintings — still lifes, scenes and portraits — made by Jennifer Packer make space for an accessible ambiguity through her multi-sensory readings of friends, family and contemporary life.

Renee Cox, "Chillin' with Liberty" (1998)

A bold pioneer in the field of photography, Renee Cox has countered dominant discourses on racial classification through a deft and witty reclamation and re-invention of black identity. Notably, with her self-styled superhero alias, Raje, and her reinterpretation of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper, as Yo Mama’s Last Supper.

Toyin Ojih Odutola, "Pregnant" (2017)

The multimedia drawings of Nigerian-born, Alabama-raised Toyin Ojih Odutola investigate “Black” as a multifaceted concept, experience and physical attribute, through layers of meaning expressed in numerous combinations of materials, social constructs, geography, and epic storytelling.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, "Amber and Jasmine" (2018)

London-based painter Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s treatment of fictionalized characters in her portraits are first and foremost grounded in the language of painting, to which she then applies her agency as a storyteller, using race, gender, interiority, obfuscation, and the dynamics of the gaze as units of story in open-ended narratives.

Carrie Mae Weems, "I Looked and Looked and Failed to See What so Terrified You" (2003)

An inspiration to a generation, Carrie Mae Weems has penetrated the borders of fine art and popular culture through her innovative use of photography — often paired with text — as a tool to disengage and destabilize malevolent and false representations of Blackness, while simultaneously forging a path toward truth telling via uncompromising creativity.

Mickalene Thomas, "Shinique: Now I Know" (2015)

Presented with rhinestones, acrylic and enamel, in photographs and collages, the ubiquitous ladies of Mickalene Thomas’ oeuvre are unmistakable due to her consistent rendering of subjects that are sensually empowered through pose, atmosphere, materials, and an exuberant flare for formal aesthetics.

Deana Lawson, "Sons of Cush" (2016)

Descending from a family with ties to the field of photography, and working with either a 4×5 or a Pentax 6/7 across the Black diaspora (in the U.S.n but also Haiti, Jamaica, Ghana, and the Democratic Republic of Congo to name a few), Deana Lawson stages detailed portraits of black men and women through the lens of empathy.

LaToya Ruby Frazier, "Momme" (2018)

LaToya Ruby Frazier is widely recognized for her use of social documentary photography to insert a political and personal narrative into the story of American small towns in decline, and most recently with Spike Lee to assert counter-narratives on Black stardom and the Ku Klux Klan.

Jordan Casteel, "Benyam" (2018)

Harlem-based painter Jordan Casteel burst onto the scene with her portraits of African Americans in domestic and community environments, translating the familiarity of close relationships to illuminate personal narratives that convey a deep embrace of the present moment.