10 Black Visual Artists to Honor this February


Tar Beach, Faith Ringgold 1988.

February is Black History Month, a time to honor the contributions of Black individuals, Black communities, and their stories. In any sector you can think of, there is Black influence and excellence—law, athletics, engineering, science, and of course, art. Since the scope of Black art history is so vast, I decided to narrow it down to Black/African-American visual artists, primarily in the 20th century. There’s everything from abstract color paintings to realistic sculptures that were carved from stone but look like they could melt in your hand.

Note: this list is by no means exhaustive, simply 10 artists I enjoyed learning about and whose legacies should be acknowledged. 

Where you can see their artwork in San Francisco:

★ = Legion of Honor/de Young (Fine Arts Museums San Francisco)

☆ = SF Museum of Modern Arts

Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937)

Tanner was known as the first African-American artist to gain international acclaim. He moved from the United States to France in order to pursue his artistic education and career; his work was then added to prestigious exhibitions. His paintings often contained landscapes, religious scenes, imagery of light, cool vs. warm tones, and depictions of daily life.

Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller (1877-1968) 

Fuller was a multimedia artist whose work often depicted Black history and horror themes, such as lynching, war, slavery, death, and even autocannibalism. Known primarily for sculpting, she was also a poet, painter, actress, and designer. Historians often call her one of the most imaginative Black artists of her generation and the first Black sculptress.

Aaron Douglas ★ (1899-1979) 

Douglas was a Modernist painter and muralist with a distinct, illustrative style that often showcased silhouettes and natural settings. He’s known for connecting Black Americans with their African heritage by highlighting the common themes of art, music, poetry, and resistance throughout the African diaspora.

Elizabeth Catlett ☆ (1915-2012) 

Catlett was a Black Mexican-American artist who focused on activism, once saying “I always wanted my art to service my people.” Her work in sculpture and printmaking strives to tell a story by centering a single central figure—often a powerful Black woman in a historical setting. She took influence from organic abstraction, Modernism, and both African and Mexican traditional art.

Alma Thomas ★ (1891-1978)

Thomas had a bold, distinctive style reminiscent of mosaic tiles and often focused on color, which she called, “the mother of life.” She was the very first graduate of Howard University’s art department, but didn’t debut nationally until she was over 80 years old. She believed that her art shouldn’t be impacted by the fact that she was a Black woman, and that creativity should transcend personhood the same way natural beauty does.

Jacob Lawrence ★☆ (1917-2000)

Lawrence painted images of both modern African-American life and global Black history through a style he called “dynamic cubism.” His list of accomplishments is long: at only 23 years old, he created the now-famous 60-panel Migration Series; his painting The Builders resides in the White House; and he was awarded 18 honorary degrees, including from Harvard and Yale.

Lois Mailou Jones ☆ (1905-1998) 

Jones was an artist and educator who celebrated Afrocentric themes, like African masks and Black history, in her many paintings. She was especially influenced by her travels around the world and often painted outside en plein air. Her artistic career lasted for over 60 years, up until her death at age 92.

Sam Gilliam ☆ (1933-2022) 

Gilliam used innovative techniques to create abstract works of art in the form of both paintings and sculptures. He is best known for his pastel color fields on hand-draped canvas, which made him “one of the great innovators” in recent American art, according to Pace Gallery. Gilliam brought painting into a 3D space and introduced abstract art to Black American culture.

Faith Ringgold (1930-present) 

Ringgold uses sculpture, fabric, paint, performing arts, and even children’s books to express complex stories. She is well-known for her “story quilts” that depict her childhood or African-American history. She’s had a long career, drawing inspiration from everything from the ‘60s Civil Rights movement to modern athletes.


Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) 

Basquiat was a Neo-expressionist artist who commented on class struggles, colonialism, and the Black experience, taking inspiration from human anatomy, black culture, and celebrities. He created drawings, paintings, sculptures, poetry, street art (graffiti), mixed media works on a variety of objects, and he often collaborated with Andy Warhol.

More amazing artists to check out: James Van Der Zee , Edmonia Lewis, Kehinde Wiley ★☆, Kerry James Marshall , Bisa Butler, Horace Pippin , Titus Kaphar, David Hammons , Betye Saar ★☆, Zora Neale Hurston, Glenn Ligon ★☆, Beauford Delaney , and Barkley L. Hendricks.