Three Artist Features to Honor Black History Month

Three Artist Features to Honor Black History Month

As one of the most influential Black artists to ever exist, Jean-Michel Basquiat started by drawing on scrap office paper as a young child. Born in New York in 1960, Basquiat started his career as a graffiti artist under the pseudonym "SAMO," meaning "same old," going around New York City spray-painting simple yet impactful drawings like Riding with Death (1988), which depicts a black man riding on a four-legged white skeleton, that touch upon themes of discrimination and prejudice. Later, Basquiat became a full-time artist who continued to represent marginalized groups with his work Black people in particular. "The Black person is the protagonist in most of my paintings. I realized that I didn’t see many paintings with Black people in them," Basquiat said about art in the late 1900s.

Basquiat frequently intertwined his love for history with his art. His piece Natives Carrying Some Guns, Bibles, and Amorites (1982) depicts scenes from the Atlantic slave trade to shed light on important historical moments in Black history. In Hollywood Africans (1983), he shows his audience a pictorial mind-map of modern Black history, writing out words and phrases such as "tobacco" and "gangsterism" to exemplify stereotypes that label Black people as dangerous. Basquiat is known worldwide for his crown motif, which appears constantly throughout his work, like in Trumpet (1984) or New York King (1960–1988). The simple yet empowering shape intends to celebrate Black people in a respected light. He also incorporates skulls, bones, and innards to convey the power and vulnerability of other marginalized people, such as janitors, cooks, and prisoners

Though Basquiat died at the young age of 27, his legacy continues on. In 2017, almost 30 years after his death, one of Basquiat's untitled paintings was auctioned off for more than $110 million and became the most expensive piece by an American artist that was ever sold in auction. His legacy is also seen today in fashion and music: Basquiat's art has been incorporated into collections by many high-end brands, including Coach, Dr. Marten's, Supreme, and Valentino; and has served as the inspiration for many songs such as Kanye West’s "Love Lockdown."

Misty Copeland stands as a history-making figure within the ballet community, breaking boundaries and setting records as a Black ballet dancer before even turning 35. Born in 1982, Copeland grew up with financial and familial instability and had to overcome many challenges as she pursued ballet. Although she began dancing at a relatively late age, 13, she quickly grasped the hand of the art and, within two years of training, won first place in ballet at the Los Angeles Music Center Spotlight Awards. Three years later, Copeland joined the Corps de Ballet at the American Ballet Theatre School (ABT), becoming the only African-American woman amongst 80 dancers. In 2007, she became the Corps' first African-American female soloist in two decades.

Copeland began advocating fiercely for diversity in the ballet community after experiencing racism first-hand—she was once told to lighten her skin with makeup to fit in with other performers. Additionally, Copeland currently works to provide dancers with different racial and economic backgrounds with easier access to dance, and she serves as a member of the advisory committee for ABT's Project Plié, a program that helps dance teachers in racially diverse communities around the country. On June 30, 2015, Misty Copeland made history by becoming the first-ever African American woman, in ABT’s 75-year history, to become principal dancer. A success story herself, Copeland now continues to push for diversity and equality both in the dance world and out.

Gordon Parks was a photographer in the 20th century known for capturing American life and culture with a deep commitment to social justice, poverty, and civil rights. His photographs were taken over the span of 60 years, from the 1940s to the early 2000s, but they still evoke the same emotions as when they were first taken.

Parks was born into poverty and never graduated high school, but his self-taught mastery of the camera soon earned him prominence and attention. Describing his first encounter with the camera, Parks remarked: "I saw that the camera could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs. I knew at that point I had to have a camera." Using his "weapon," Parks helped the world understand the lives—the hardships, the happiness, the good, and the bad—of Black people in 20th century America.

In 1942, Parks' works awarded him a prestigious fellowship that allowed him to work at the Farm Security Administration, at which he was tasked with documenting African-American lives in Washington D.C., a deeply-segregated city at the time. Parks often empathized with his models and their experiences against racism, and this helped him capture beautiful photographs of his models. He would photograph ordinary Black people—a cleaning lady in a D.C. government building as captured in American Gothic (1942), an oil worker at the Penola grease plant in Pittsburgh, or Black pilots training for war—in ways that presented them as modern heroes. In 1949, he became the first Black staff photographer for LIFE magazine and continued his upward climb towards worldwide recognition. Now, his legacy as one of the most important 20th century photographers remains ever prominent, with his commitment towards social justice still shining through in his photographs.

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