Art History Lab

Unveiling the Undervalued: Recognizing Black Women Artists Throughout History

Art is a form of human expression that has been around for centuries. Throughout history, art has been used to narrate cultural and societal experiences that are significant to different communities.

However, for many years, black women artists have remained undervalued in the art world. In this article, we will explore two main topics that help shed light on the undervaluation of these artists and what can be done to rectify this.

Rise of Interest in Black Women Artists

The Undervaluation of Black Women Artists in Art History

For many years, black women artists have been undervalued in art history. The art world has historically been dominated by white men, which has led to a lack of representation of other artists, particularly women of color.

Black women artists have been at the forefront of this struggle for recognition. Art historian, Connie Choi, explains that black women artists have been excluded from major institutions, art history curricula, and generally ignored by the art market.

One factor for this undervaluation can be attributed to categorization. Artworks by black women have been regularly collected and displayed as ethnic rather than as part of the larger art world, with galleries often treating their work as exotic or naive, affecting their core pricing, value, and investment potential.

Black women artists have also had to face the barrier of gender in their field, making it even harder to break through and achieve widespread recognition.

Changing Perceptions of Black Artists through Critiques of Race and Gender

However, in recent years, black women artists have begun to receive more recognition in the art world. Museums, galleries, and collectors have started to recognize the artistic contributions of black women artists, both historical and contemporary, and this has led to growing interest in their works.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, for instance, is a prime example of how the art world is beginning to recognize the value of black artists. In his lifetime, Basquiat was often marginalized by the predominantly white mainstream art world.

However, today he is recognized as an iconic figure whose works have played a crucial role in the evolution of Black art. Basquiat’s story highlights a bigger movement towards acknowledging and highlighting artists of color.

Categories of race and gender have been challenged and discussed in recent years through exhibitions and art critiques, leading to a more inclusive art world. By studying and discussing these issues, the perception of black artists has changed, leading to their increased representation and recognition.

Erasure of Black Women Artists

Unnamed Black Women Artists and Pre-Colonial Artistry

Erasure of black women artists has a deep history in the art world. Pre-colonial Africa, for example, had a rich culture of artistry with women playing a significant role in the production of works of art.

However, much of this has been overlooked, misattributed, and lost amid the chaos and destruction of colonization and imperialism. One such example of this artistry, mostly unrecognized, is Ndebele wall painting.

Ndebele womens wall painting is unique in that it serves not only an aesthetic purpose but also a practical one. These paintings provide social commentaries and educational, cultural, and moral lessonsnone of which has been recognized for their potential value in art markets.

Preserving and Reviving the Artistic Traditions

One way to address the erasure of black women artists is to pass down their artistic traditions. An example of iconic black women artists doing this is Elizabeth Catlett.

After extensive studies in Europe and the US, Catlett returned to Mexico to teach at the National School of Art, where she took up the work of local artisans. She taught these artisans various techniques she had learned and worked with them on large scale pieces, like murals.

Through her teaching, she ensured that these skills were preserved and passed down for future generations. Prominent black women artists like Kara Walker, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, and Mickalene Thomas, have also been recognized for their contributions in the contemporary art arena.

These artists are carving out a space for themselves in which their work can be viewed, valued, and acknowledged. Their works represent cultural commentary, revolutionary aesthetics, and fresh perspectives.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, the art world has often undervalued and erased black women artists. However, through intentional recognition and preservation of existing artistic traditions and potential emerging voices, this narrative can change for the better.

It’s not just about overlooked artists but also the content and context that these artists manage to communicate from their position.

The rise of interest in black women artists today is a testament to how artists are capable of contributing to promoting awareness, empathy, and social justice.

Their work, and contributions, serve as an essential aspect of global art history and gender and race identity development. It is crucial that these artists be recognized, acknowledged, and celebrated.

And that this growing recognition encourages upcoming artists and art fans.Art must continue to push boundaries, challenge the status quo and invite new perspectives, and black women artists must continue to play a crucial role in this.

Subjective Portraiture and Black Female Artists

Laura Wheeler Waring and Black Female Artists in the 19th Century

Laura Wheeler Waring was a portrait painter who gained recognition during the early 19th century for her ability to capture the essence of her subjects in a realistic and subjective manner. Her work was celebrated for its ability to convey the emotions and personalities of the people she painted, especially black women, unlike other portraits of that time that depicted them only as a commodity or servile subjects.

She painted a diverse range of subjects, including prominent Black leaders such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Marian Anderson, and more. Waring employed a unique approach in painting black subjects, given her fascination with the inherent beauty of black skin.

This viewpoint was a clear rebuttal to the ongoing notion that darker skin was unattractive when it came to Black people during Waring’s period. Her technique and subject choices contributed to the development of subjective portraiture, which has since become customary in modern-day art.

Commissioned Portraits and Art Material Availability

Women artists’ access to art materials was largely restricted during the 19th century, and this led to a severe lack of opportunities for them to produce masterpieces. However, Laura Wheeler Waring was one of the few black women artists who were able to break through.

This was made possible through commissioned portraits, which allowed her to make a living while satisfying her passion for portraiture. Commissioned portraits were a way for artists to generate a steady income by painting clients who would pay for their services.

However, it was challenging for women to find clients who could afford commissioned portraits, and Waring’s success in building her reputation as a Black female artist was nothing short of unusual and remarkable. Even with the constraints on the availability of art materials and commissioning, she managed to create an amazing body of work that paved the way for Black female artists in the 20th century.

The Harlem Renaissance was marked by a period of influential cultural creativity and budding black artists’ recognition. However, this renaissance movement was marked mostly by male artists, with black women artists rather overlooked.

It was Laura Wheeler Waring and some few other black women who stepped up to the task and created beautiful works of art that greatly defined the era. Alma W.

Thomas and Experimental Art

Alma W. Thomas and Modernism

Alma W.

Thomas was a black female artist who emerged in the art scene during the mid-20th century, precisely the 1960s. She made her mark on modernism, and her use of vibrant colors and innovative patterns and shapes in her work made her an essential part of the abstract expressionist and color field painting movements.

Thomas’s working background was in education, having taught art at Shaw Junior High School in Washington, D.C., for 37 years before retiring. Her bold use of color and form was inspired by her belief in the healing power of art, her interest in technology and science, and the cultural currents of the moment.

The Eclipse Painting and the Washington Color School

Thomas’ work is marked by diversity and experimentation. She once said during an interview that “one cannot be negative with color.

There is no sadness. There is only light or lack of light, it’s like being blind.” Her way of approaching abstract expressionism and color field painting was unique, combining the elements of both in an eclectic fashion.

Her most famous work is “The Eclipse,” which she completed in 1970. It is a standout piece for its intricate patterns and vibrant color combinations, fully realizing the potential of her experimentation.

Her work doubled as a celebration of her Southern roots and culture, which makes it all the more compelling. Even though she lived, worked and exhibited mainly in the Washington, D.C., area, Alma W.

Thomas’s artistic achievements reached far beyond. She was one of the founding members of the Washington Color School, a group of abstract painters that rejected expressionism and focused on exploring color as a medium.


Through the fascinating journeys of Laura Wheeler Waring and Alma W. Thomas, we can see how Black female artists have blazed creative and colorful trails throughout the centuries.

We have seen the rise of subjectivity in portraiture and how black women artists have worked hard to achieve the recognition they deserve. We have also seen how artists like Alma W.

Thomas redefined Modernism and transformed the world of abstract art through experimentation and the relaying of important cultural stories and experiences. As art continues to change, that once-challenged narrative on the place of Black women artists in the industry becomes stronger.

These artists continue to inspire and pave the way for future generations.

Lois Mailou Jones and Her Colorful Paintings

Lois Mailou Jones and Early Artistic Influences

Lois Mailou Jones is a painter who made significant contributions during her career in the mid-20th century and into the early 21st century. Her unique artistic style was rooted in her diverse personal experiences, including her international travels, which greatly impacted her works and artistic practice.

Jones’ travels to France, Haiti, and Africa sparked her interest in using African motifs, masks, and traditional art styles in her paintings. Her trips to Haiti and Africa were particularly crucial for her growth as an artist, having exposed her to a vast array of cultural art practices and traditions.

Jones’ desire to portray women’s lives, which were often overlooked in art, became another significant driving force for her artistic development.

Lois Mailou Jones and Lush and Brilliant Colors

Jones’s paintings are known for their lush and brilliant colors which capture a sense of joy and exuberance. Her use of blues, greens, and oranges brings life to her paintings, and creates a sense of familiarity and warmth.

Her work oscillates between representational and abstract, but the common denominator is her love for color and her desire to convey beauty. Jones championed for a non-labeling approach to her art, forgoing the conventions of categorizing artists and their artworks, so that she could tell her stories in ways that were entirely her own.

Her colorful paintings are an expression of her personal style and worldview, which continue to inspire artists today.

Gladys Mgudlandlu and Her Surreal Landscapes

Gladys Mgudlandlu and Her Late Start in Painting

Gladys Mgudlandlu was a South African painter who began her career in painting after 40. As a self-taught artist, Mgudlandlu’s paintings evoke the elements and principles of traditional African art while also incorporating her unique style and technique.

Mgudlandlu’s paintings were characterized by bright and honest depictions of ordinary life. She believed that art should be accessible to ordinary people and sought to capture regular people’s struggles, joys, and aspirations.

Her first solo exhibition, which took place in 1961, was a breakthrough in the South African art world, as it was the first time a black woman had a solo exhibition. Gladys Mgudlandlu’s Surreal Landscapes

Mgudlandlu’s paintings often feature birds, which she saw as symbols of freedom and an aspiration for a better future.

In her surrealist landscapes, the birds symbolize Mgudlandlu’s loneliness but also her affinity with nature. Her use of a bold color palette, combined with an almost magical realism element in her landscapes, created vibrant and engaging pieces of artwork.

Because of her late start in painting, she was more daring and experimental with her themes and painting techniques, making her paintings visually striking. Her use of surrealism in her landscapes brings about some psychological meaning, much of it involving poverty and inequality, which was her main inspiration.

Her surrealist paintings are packed full of meaning and emotion, and they continue to inspire African artists today.


In conclusion, Lois Mailou Jones and Gladys Mgudlandlu are among the many Black women artists who have created art that embodied a range of human experiences. Their use of color, style, and form ultimately highlight their abilities and distinct identities as artists.

Lois Mailou Jones’ work portrayed the everyday life of women while capturing the essence of both Western and African-inspired motifs and solidifying her place in the world of art. Gladys Mgudlandlu personified painting as a means of expression liberating and created pieces that exposed the socio-economic realities of her surroundings.

Both artists made significant contributions to the art world and continue to be celebrated to this day. They serve as inspiration to many artists, affirming the message that anyone can achieve greatness with the power of their craft and dedication to their passion.

Faith Ringgold and Her Narrative Quilts

Faith Ringgold and the Civil Rights Movement

Faith Ringgold is a renowned artist known for her groundbreaking narrative quilts and her powerful storytelling. Born in 1930 in Harlem, Ringgold grew up during a time of immense racial tensions and social inequalities.

Her experiences during the Civil Rights movement greatly influenced her work and inspired her to use art as a tool for activism. Ringgold’s narrative quilts were a unique form of artistic expression, combining traditional quilting techniques with painted imagery and storytelling.

Through her quilts, she told stories of the Black community, often depicting historical events, personal experiences, and social commentaries. Her work challenged the dominant narratives and shed light on untold stories and overlooked perspectives.

Faith Ringgold’s Struggles for Recognition and Challenging Racism

Ringgold faced early struggles for recognition as a Black female artist in the predominantly white art world. She had to navigate through the challenges of racism and sexism, which often marginalized Black artists, particularly women.

But she persisted and became an influential figure in challenging mass media representations of Black people. Ringgold’s art critiques racism and addresses the misrepresentation of Black individuals in popular culture and the media.

She challenges stereotypical narratives by skillfully using imagery, text, and symbolism to confront and dismantle biased viewpoints. Her work acts as a powerful counter-narrative, offering a more authentic and nuanced portrayal of the Black experience.

Adrian Piper and her Conceptual Art

Adrian Piper and Conceptual Art

Adrian Piper is a groundbreaking artist whose work is deeply rooted in conceptual art. Her multidisciplinary approach encompasses performance art, installation, video, and writing.

Through her works, Piper explores complex societal dynamics, including race, gender, and identity, challenging conventional notions and redefining artistic boundaries. Piper’s conceptual art blurs the lines between art and life, provoking viewers to critically engage with their own assumptions and prejudices.

One of her notable contributions is her critique of the art world itself, exposing the biases and exclusions within the institution. Her work transcends traditional artistic forms, reflecting a keen understanding of the power that art holds to challenge the status quo and effect social change.

Adrian Piper’s Gaze, Touch, and Challenging Presuppositions

Piper’s art often explores the dynamics of gaze and touch, examining the ways in which they shape our understanding of race, gender, and social interactions. In her performances and installations, she questions the presuppositions of white audiences and forces them to confront their own implicit biases.

Through her thought-provoking works, Piper disrupts the passive consumption of art and challenges viewers to actively engage with their own complicity in perpetuating societal inequalities. An example of Piper’s critical engagement with the gaze can be seen in her iconic performance piece “Cornered,” in which she stood silently in a corner, facing the wall, while viewers were confronted with their own discomfort and inability to ignore her presence.

Her use of touch, particularly in works like “Catalysis” series, further pushes boundaries, sparking conversations about personal space, consent, and power dynamics.


Faith Ringgold and Adrian Piper are two remarkable artists whose work continues to challenge, provoke, and inspire. Ringgold’s narrative quilts highlight the rich history and experiences of the Black community, while Piper’s conceptual art deconstructs societal norms and confronts viewers with their own biases.

Both artists have used their art as a means to challenge and change the status quo, and their contributions have had a profound impact on the art world and beyond. As we continue to celebrate the achievements of Black women artists, it is essential to recognize and celebrate their invaluable contributions to art and society as a whole.

Ellen Gallagher and Her Manipulated Images

Ellen Gallagher’s Collages and Manipulation of Images

Ellen Gallagher is a contemporary artist known for her unique approach to collage and painting. Her work often involves the manipulation of found imagery, where she combines fragments of historical references, popular culture, and personal experiences into thought-provoking compositions.

Gallagher critiques historical narratives by deconstructing and re-contextualizing images. Through her use of collage, she challenges the dominant narratives surrounding race and history, providing alternative perspectives and uncovering hidden layers of meaning.

By rearranging and transforming found imagery, she highlights the power dynamics and complexities embedded within visual representations. Ellen Gallagher’s Critique of Victorian Portraiture

In her work, Gallagher particularly focuses on deconstructing and reimagining Victorian portraiture.

She interrogates the dark parts of American history and the ways in which these historical narratives have been constructed. By modifying and altering these images, she brings attention to the painful absurdity of racism, exploitation, and other forms of oppression that were prevalent during that era.

Gallagher’s artwork challenges viewers to confront uncomfortable truths by exposing the paradoxes and contradictions within historical representations. Her creations prompt critical reflection on the power dynamics and unjust systems that persist, even in contemporary society.

Kara Walker and Her Cut-Paper Silhouettes

Kara Walker’s Cut-Paper Silhouettes and Historical Narratives

Kara Walker is renowned for her bold and provocative cut-paper silhouettes, which explore complex historical narratives, particularly those surrounding race and gender dynamics in America. Her art serves as a visual critique of American revisionist history, exposing the darker aspects of the nation’s past.

Through her cut-paper silhouettes, Walker unveils uncomfortable truths and challenges viewers to confront the legacy of slavery, racism, and systemic inequality. Her intricate, ornate compositions capture both the horror and absurdity of historical events, creating a haunting visual language that provokes criticality.

Kara Walker’s Challenge of Racism and Gender Dynamics

Walker’s work confronts the intersecting dynamics of racism and gender head-on. Her silhouettes often depict scenes of violence, sexual exploitation, and subjugation, engaging with and subverting historical stereotypes.

By presenting these troubling narratives through her artwork, Walker exposes and destabilizes the power structures that underpin systemic racism and sexism. One of Walker’s notable installations, “A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby,” was a large-scale sphinx-like sculpture made of sugar.

This work, situated in an old sugar refinery, confronted the history of the sugar trade and its connection to slavery and exploitation. It provoked uncomfortable conversations about racial and sexual dynamics, leaving viewers to grapple with the lasting impact of such systems.


Ellen Gallagher and Kara Walker are exceptional artists whose works shine a light on uncomfortable aspects of history and challenge dominant narratives. Gallagher’s manipulation of images exposes the complexities of history and representation, while Walker’s cut-paper silhouettes provoke critical engagement with the legacy of racism and gender dynamics.

Both artists provide important voices in the art world, dismantling stereotypes, and sparking conversations about power, inequality, and the need for truth and reconciliation. Their art serves as a reminder of the ongoing work needed to reshape historical narratives and create a more inclusive and just society.

Wangechi Mutu and the Beauty in Ugliness

Wangechi Mutu’s Collage and Painting

Wangechi Mutu is a Kenyan-born artist known for her powerful and thought-provoking collages and paintings. Her work explores themes of identity, gender, and race, often challenging the lack of representation and the harmful stereotypes that persist in contemporary society.

Mutu’s collages involve the meticulous layering and juxtaposition of various materials, including magazine cut-outs, fabric, and paint. This technique allows her to deconstruct and reconstruct images, creating distorted, eerie, and fascinating compositions.

Her works possess a raw energy that disrupts conventional notions of beauty and invites viewers to question their own preconceptions. Hybridity in Wangechi Mutu’s Art

Mutu’s art embodies elements of hybridity, blurring the boundaries between the human and the animal, the organic and the synthetic.

Her creations are simultaneously alluring and repulsive, invoking feelings of attraction and discomfort. The twisted violence and erasure depicted in her work serve as metaphors for the injustices faced by marginalized communities.

Through her art, Mutu challenges the viewer’s perception of beauty by embracing the unconventional, the grotesque, and the overlooked. By shedding light on the experiences of the marginalized, she calls attention to the intricacies and complexities of the human condition.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and Muted Colors

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s Muted Colors and Mysterious Narratives

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye is a British-Ghanaian artist celebrated for her unique approach to portraiture. Her paintings are characterized by their muted color palettes, creating an atmosphere of tranquility and ambiguity.

Through her use of color, she invites viewers into a world of quiet introspection and engages them in the exploration of the human psyche. Yiadom-Boakye’s subjects are often fictional and mysterious, with the narratives surrounding them intentionally left open-ended.

The lack of specific context and identity allows viewers to project their own interpretations and engage with the emotional depth of the paintings. It is through this ambiguity that Yiadom-Boakye emphasizes the universality of human experience.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s Rapid Painterly Process and Use of Found Objects

Yiadom-Boakye’s distinctive style is reflected in her rapid painterly process. Working quickly and intuitively, she captures the essence of her subjects with loose brushstrokes and expressive marks.

This spontaneous approach results in a sense of movement and vitality, imbuing her paintings with a dynamic presence. In addition to her rapid painting process, Yiadom-Boakye incorporates found objects into her works.

By including elements such as generic clothing and ambiguous settings, she invites viewers to create their own narratives and form a connection with the subjects. This intentional ambiguity challenges traditional notions of portraiture and expands the possibilities of representation and storytelling.


Wangechi Mutu and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye are extraordinary artists who contribute to the diversification of artistic expression through their unique styles and thought-provoking themes. Mutu’s collages and paintings challenge norms of beauty and representation, using hybridity and the juxtaposition of elements to expose societal injustices.

Yiadom-Boakye’s muted colors and enigmatic narratives invite viewers into a world of introspection, encouraging personal interpretation and connection. Both artists provide invaluable perspectives that invite us to reflect on the complexities of identity, culture, and the human experience.

Through their work, they continue to reshape and expand the boundaries of artistic expression. In conclusion, this article has highlighted the significant contributions of various Black women artists across different time periods and artistic approaches.

Artists like Faith Ringgold, Kara Walker, and Ellen Gallagher have defied conventional norms and challenged historical narratives through their unique artistic techniques and perspectives. From narrative quilts to cut-paper silhouettes and manipulated images, these artists have used their art to deconstruct stereotypes, critique oppressive systems, and bring forth marginalized voices.

The importance of recognizing and celebrating the contributions of Black women artists cannot be overstated. Their work not only reshapes the art world but also provokes critical thinking, promotes inclusivity, and invites new perspectives.

Through their creativity and resilience, they inspire future generations to boldly express themselves, challenge the status quo, and envision a more just and equitable world.

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