One of Chicago’s leading black artists and designers in the 1920s and ’30s, Charles C. Dawson supported himself by creating advertising illustrations for some of the city’s most enterprising black entrepreneurs. From his deftly drawn portraits on packages of beauty products for black women to his mural at the 1933–1934 Century of Progress Fair illustrating the exodus of African Americans from the South to the industrial cities of the North, Dawson recognized the power of art to break—or at least call into question—prevailing stereotypes.
Like Dawson, today’s black artists are creating with a similar purpose. Alanna Airitam grew up going to museums, but realized she never saw someone like her as the main subject of a painting. If there was a person of color within the frame, they were a servant or just in the background. So, the self-taught fine art photographer decided to address “the absence of black people in the history of Western art.” Her lushly styled portraits shift the narratives about misrepresented or underrepresented people and provide a glimpse into the beauty of a diverse culture.
Kerry James Marshall takes a more aggressive swing at the marginalization of African Americans, challenging both the wall space given to white artists in galleries and museums and their dominance within the art history canon. He has dedicated his work to flipping (off) that script. Move over da Vinci. With his sought-after paintings, drawings, videos, and installations, Marshall offers an unflinching alternate history of black identity that belongs alongside classic masterpieces.
Countless other black artists and designers have dedicated their careers to busting stereotypes and representing the unique history, culture, and humanity of the black experience within our collective past and present. Take a few minutes to celebrate Black History Month by viewing their works and appreciating their power. There is a wealth of information out there. Here are some links to get you started:
Then tell us who else deserves a closer look.