Black Women Who Rule the Art Scene

From Faith Ringgold to Betye Saar, from Lorna Simpson to Thelma Golden, these women are having a big impact on the world of art.

Image 1
  • Elizabeth Catlett

    Elizabeth Catlett

    The doyenne of African-American art, Catlett, who died April 2, 2012, devoted three-quarters of a century to teaching and making art “relevant to her people.” This is an approach she had taken since the 1920s and ’30s, when she worked in the mural division of the Works Progress Administration. With advanced degrees in art history, drawing and printmaking, she was renowned for her sculpture, and beloved and revered for her commitment to artworks depicting the lives of black people — especially her prolific body of work dedicated to black women.

  • Mildred Howard

    Mildred Howard

    Using a visual vocabulary shaped by “memory, history, family, identity and place,” Howard is a prolific mixed-media and installation artist with 30-plus years of historically significant national and international exhibitions. She has represented the United States as a cultural specialist in Egypt and Morocco and has numerous public artworks in the San Francisco Bay Area, with several new works this year and an exhibit at the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Wash., opening this summer.

    Captions by Margaret Porter Troupe

  • Valerie Cassel Oliver

    Valerie Cassel Oliver

    Oliver, senior curator at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, has become a powerful force in contemporary art. She made indelible impressions while co-curating the “2000 Whitney Biennial” and curating the “Double Consciousness” show, which explored the conceptual-art practices of African Americans — a shout-out to Du Bois’ theory that blacks don’t need to look at themselves through the eyes of others. Her achievements earned her the coveted 2011 David C. Driskell Prize for original contributions to African-American art.

  • Corrine Jennings

    Corrine Jennings

    Along with her husband, Joe Overstreet, and writer Samuel C. Floyd, Jennings founded Kenkeleba House as an alternative exhibition space presenting works by African-American and other artists outside the cultural mainstream. Kenkeleba House encourages experimentation and interdisciplinary projects. Jennings, who is also director of the Wilmer Jennings Gallery in New York, has organized major exhibitions of more than 5,000 artists and produced 23 catalogs. She and Overstreet have a significant historical collection of 19th- to 21st-century African-American artwork and traditional African art.

  • Lowery Stokes Sims

    Lowery Stokes Sims

    Sims is a leading contemporary-art scholar and the first African-American curator to be hired by New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she was instrumental in building the museum’s collection of works by artists of color. A former director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, she is the Charles Bronfman International Curator at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City, where she mounts the most imaginative exhibitions of contemporary art today.

  • Betye Saar

    Betye Saar

    Before most of us were a glimmer in our parents’ eyes, Saar was establishing herself as an educator, printmaker and installation artist. Saar says, “I am intrigued with combining the remnant of memories, fragments of relics and ordinary objects with components of technology. It’s a way of delving into the past and reaching into the future simultaneously.” Provocative, confrontational, interactive, her work addresses American culture, politics, contemporary art practices and feminism. Her daughters, Alison and Lezley, are themselves distinguished artists.

  • Thelma Golden

    Thelma Golden

    Golden, director and chief curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem, carved her giant footprint in the art world as a curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. She is by far the most powerful, influential and fearless curator of her generation. Golden coined the phrase “post-black” as part of the lexicon of contemporary art discourse to liberate the art made by blacks from labeling constraints that for centuries had kept it marginalized. She has made the Studio Museum an internationally recognized cultural institution.

  • Judith Wilson

    Judith Wilson

    Wilson’s influence on international groups of art scholars and her pioneering achievements in visual art and cultural politics have been the subjects of university symposiums. The art historian, professor of art and cultural critic has lectured widely, and her writings — which have appeared in authoritative books; essays for catalogs of the Whitney Museum of American Art and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; as well as scholarly journals and art magazines — have informed scholarly practice and promoted fresh ways of thinking and writing about art in the Diaspora.

  • Lizzetta LeFalle-Collins

    Lizzetta LeFalle-Collins

    LeFalle-Collins has curated museum exhibitions throughout the United States as well as biennials in Bermuda, Brazil and South Africa. She is currently working on a book about abstract expressionist painter Mary Lovelace O’Neal, titled Painting Like a Man: The Art and Life of Mary Lovelace O’Neal, and the article “The Brockman Gallery and the Village” — about Leimert Park in Los Angeles, a cultural mecca in the 1960s and ’70s. Her online project, Open Door-Contemporary Art Projects, focuses on contemporary art in the Atlantic Diaspora.

  • Leslie King-Hammond

    Leslie King-Hammond

    King-Hammond, a foremost authority on African-American art and culture, is graduate dean emeritus of the Maryland Institute College of Art and founding director of MICA’s Center for Race and Culture. The center invites scholars, doctoral candidates, artists, critics, musicians, actors and historians to research or create events that focus on the aesthetic dynamics of race and culture in order to break down racial barriers, build bridges of cultural understanding and prepare students for leadership roles in the international art world.

  • Kinshasha Conwill Holman

    Kinshasha Conwill Holman

    Deputy director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., Holman is an internationally renowned consultant on museum management and policy, as well as a lecturer-writer on art, culture and museums. As director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, she organized 40-plus major exhibitions, including the “1990 Venice Biennale,” an award-winning exhibition about contemporary African art. Holman sits on major museum and arts-foundation boards and arts advisory committees, including the Federal Advisory Committee on International Exhibitions.

  • Mary Schmidt Campbell

    Mary Schmidt Campbell

    Appointed by Barack Obama as vice chair of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, a nonpartisan advisory committee to the president on cultural matters, Campbell is dean of the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. Formerly New York City commissioner of cultural affairs, chair of the New York State Council on the Arts and director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, she is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. Campbell is currently writing a book about artist Romare Bearden.

  • Deborah Willis

    Deborah Willis

    A MacArthur fellow, scholar and photographer, Willis is making groundbreaking contributions to the history of photography. She is the author of Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photography, and her latest book, Posing Beauty, which puts into context the historical representation of black beauty in the media, is also a traveling museum exhibit. She is a professor, and chair of the department of photography, at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.

  • Lorna Simpson

    Lorna Simpson

    Simpson is the first African-American woman to have a solo exhibition in the “Projects” series of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the Venice Biennale. The photographer-filmmaker is also one of very few African-American artists whose work has been exhibited at Documenta in Kassel, Germany, one of the most important modern- and contemporary-art exhibitions in the world. In 2010, Simpson won the International Center for Photography’s Infinity Award, which recognizes future luminaries and individuals with outstanding achievements in photography.

  • Faith Ringgold

    Faith Ringgold

    Ringgold was one of the first female artists to begin making art objects in a medium known as women’s work (textiles, sewn fabrics, weaving, quilting) and was instrumental in having this work exhibited as serious art rather than craft. She is best known for her painted story quilts, combining painting, quilted fabric and storytelling. Her artwork is in the permanent collections of New York City’s Studio Museum in Harlem, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art.

  • Jacquelyn Days Serwer

    Jacquelyn Days Serwer

    Serwer has organized numerous exhibitions featuring 20th-century artists such as Jasper Johns, David Hockney, Nam June Paik, Robert Cottingham, Miriam Schapiro, Larry Rivers and Caio Fonseca. She began her curatorial career at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and taught art history at the École des Beaux Art in Geneva and at Brooklyn College in New York. Formerly chief curator at the Corcoran Museum of Art in Washington, D.C., she is now chief curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

  • Valerie Mercer

    Valerie Mercer

    Mercer is the first curator of African-American art and head of the General Motors Center for African American Art at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Formerly a senior curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem, she developed five permanent collection galleries for African-American art as part of the DIA’s reinstallation project unveiled in 2007. A Harvard-trained art historian, Mercer has written extensively on art.

  • Samella Lewis

    Samella Lewis

    A painter, curator and filmmaker as well as an arts educator, Lewis is probably best known as an arts historian, activist and fierce advocate for African-American art. Her book Art: African American, published in 1978, is used in art-history courses at colleges and universities throughout the U.S. She is the founder of the Museum of African American Art in Los Angeles as well as the International Review of African American Art, a journal now published by Hampton University, her alma mater.

  • Andrea Barnwell Brownlee

    Andrea Barnwell Brownlee

    An art historian, curator and critic, as well as director of the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, Brownlee is a recognized authority on African-American, black British and contemporary African art. The recipient of numerous academic and scholarly awards, including a MacArthur Curatorial Fellowship at the Art Institute of Chicago in the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art, she was a participant in the Museum Management Institute at the Getty Leadership Institute.

  • Kellie Jones

    Kellie Jones

    It’s no surprise that Jones is a dynamo in the art world, having two powerhouse literary figures, Amiri Baraka and Hettie Jones, as parents. But she’s made a name for herself as an art historian and curator. Subject of a new book, Eyeminded: Living and Writing Contemporary Art, and currently at work on the manuscript for Taming the Freeway and Other Acts of Urban HIP-notism: African American Artists in Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s, she is an associate professor of art at Columbia University.

  • Carroll Parrott Blue

    Carroll Parrott Blue

    One of the most brilliant lights in film, video and interactive media, Blue, a research professor at the University of Houston, blazed a new trail in the field of memoir with her lyrical five-star memoir, The Dawn at My Back: Memoir of a Black Texas Upbringing. Houston’s African Americans have traditionally emphasized building strong, well-knit communities. Blue’s work continues this legacy of community building through the use of new-media formats, public workshops and public art installations.

  • Candida Alvarez

    Candida Alvarez

    At the helm of one of the top-ranked fine-arts programs in the nation as interim dean of graduate studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, painter and mixed-media artist Alvarez is a graduate of Fordham University and the Yale School of Art. Her artwork is in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art; the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Mass.; the Studio Museum in Harlem; and El Museo del Barrio New York.