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5 African American Artists Not Named Jean-Michel Basquiat

Lee Jaffe, Hulton Archive

Welcome to the wild world of contemporary hip-hop and R&B music where only one African American visual artist seems to exist — Jean-Michel Basquiat.

This singular and arbitrary focus is likely a result of rap being a highly aspirational genre. Basquiat started from the bottom, like so many others in hip-hop do.

And while that can frequently be one of hip-hop’s strengths, it can also have the effect of making the worldview seem narrower. Much narrower. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a popular musician these days who can name an artist besides Basquiat.

Basquiat may be the Hermes Alligator Skin hoody of the art game, but the metaphorical, understated-yet-cakey Ralph Lauren boat shoe must exist as well, no?

Get familiar with 5 African American artists who aren’t named Basquiat.

Richard Ellis, Getty Images

Henry Ossawa Tanner

Legend has it that Mr. Tanner was the first African American artist to gain international acclaim, and the realities of American society and racial turmoil were reflected in his art and life.

Born in Pittsburgh to a minister father and a mother who escaped slavery via the Underground Railroad, his middle name referenced the Kansas town where the white militant Abolitionist John Brown first launched his anti-slavery campaign. The family moved to Philadelphia where, in an odd footnote, Henry’s father became friend & critic of infamous anarchist Benjamin Tucker.

Tanner was the only black student at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and thrived artistically in an era where a tired curriculum’s focus on anatomy was frankly played out. However, Henry refused to be limited by the prevailing artistic norms; he cultivated a realist artistic style which conveyed the weight and structure of the human form on the canvas.

Henry left America in 1891 for Paris where he acclimated quickly to the Parisian lifestyle and near non-existent racial limitations in the artistic culture. It was vital to Tanner that his work be judged merely for its artistic merit as opposed to potential racial baggage.

Tanner’s career flourished in Europe and he went on to gain a reputation in America where he exhibited his art in places like Philadelphia, Boston, New York, Chicago, Washington, Pittsburgh, & St. Louis. It was on these trips back to America where the ex-pat created some of his most notable works including The Banjo Lesson, inspired by Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem, “A Banjo Song.”

Henry worked for the Red Cross Public Information Department in France and painted images from the front lines of World War I.

Mr. Tanner died in France in 1937 before he could see his piece Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City become the first artwork by an African American enter the permanent collection of the White House.

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