Artists Reframing Black Figuration

In London, the National Portrait Gallery's exhibition on artists reframing the Black figure is sadly about to close.

But globetrotting Europeans can visit the Kunstmuseum at Basel, Switzerland for another salient exhibition of a similar vein We See Us: A Century of Black Figuration in Painting (running from May 25th to October 27th). 

Lina Iris Viktor, Red/ Meridian, 2021-22. Pilar Corrias, London

When the Black Lives Matter movement was at its peak during Covid, the Western art world emerged from lockdown loaded with numerous exhibitions celebrating Black artists. It seemed that a reformation was under way, and a traditionally white-dominated space had woken up to its historical marginalisation of Black minorities. In the years since however, some critics remarked that the enthusiasm for spotlighting Black artists had fallen to the wayside.

But Afrofuturist artists challenging the Western cannon, such as Lina Iris Viktor, and upcoming exhibitions on incredible talents like Mickalene Thomas and Zanele Muholi are giving us hope. 

Art history is teeming with influences and powerful works from iconic Black artists like Frank Bowling, Uzi Egonu and Chris Ofili. In the UK, we’ve seen influential artists such as Sonia Boyce, curators like Lubaina Himid and Ekow Eshun, and the rise of the British Black Arts Movement and the BLK Art Group.

While in the US, artists like Augusta Savage, Aaron Douglas and Hale Woodruff pioneered the Harlem Renaissance in post-slavery America; a landmark cultural and artistic movement currently being discussed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Tyler Mitchell, Untitled (Lunarlander), 2021. Gagosian & Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

From practitioners Charles White and Jeff Donaldson (who arose during the Civil Rights Movement) to photographers like Tyler Mitchell and Nadine Ijewere (featured in Antwaun Sargent’s book The New Black Vanguard), Black artistry has and will always be fundamental to the evolution of artistic and social perspectives.

Title image. Sungi Mlengeya, Constant 3, 2019. Courtesy of Kunstmuseum