These eight Black artists use different mediums to challenge social, racial and sexual perceptions across the globe.
It’s International Women’s Day and, though we’d all do well to appreciate women’s contributions 24/7, today is an especially good day to give flowers to Black women artists who make deeply impactful, beautiful work. On a day meant to celebrate the achievements of women and to demand better treatment for women worldwide, the eight women below use different mediums to challenge social, racial and sexual perceptions across the globe. In their work, we find freedom — or at least pathways to it. They use clay, paint, fabric, music, film and their own bodies as tools to uplift and uphold Black women past, present and future.
This list could, of course, be extremely long. But here are eight we’ve chosen this year. In no particular order.
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Known mostly for her portrait photography, Diallo is also a visual artist who uses images to challenge antiquated ideas. Or, more accurately, she uses her images to convey truthful ideas of antiquity, ideas that predate colonialism, showing the revelry and reign of Black and indigenous women.
The French-Senegalese artist has recently completed a book titled Divine, a collection sourced from 12 years of her photographs celebrating the female form. The images don’t only suggest connection to their subjects, they demand it. Her work doesn’t sexualize women, but instead shows their sexuality and sensuality. There is a regalness at the foundation of each and every image she produces. The personhood of her subjects emanates through the frame. As Diallo herself says, “I am not taking pictures, I am giving pictures.”
Davis’ Instagram bio reads, “Artist… a writer of sorts.” A description both accurate and a little cheeky. Though she also creates mixed media sculptures, Davis is most known for her intricate portraits using texts, handwriting and rubber letter stamps. Her finished work — paintings, sketches, poems — requires you to see her process. In your mind’s eye, you imagine her moving slowly across the canvas, writing a word or name or phrase over and over again like a mantra, concentrating in certain areas to create contrast. The effect is like time-travel, meditation and a challenge to your depth perception. (Also — really, really cool.)
Almost every Davis piece is named after someone — typically a Black woman — whose name or initials are found to be the building block upon which her pieces are made. Davis evidences over and over again that this person existed while she creates a likeness of them. Repeating their names, declaring them real to the world, and ensuring no one can doubt they were here.
Tourmaline is an activist, filmmaker and writer focused on uplifting and exalting Black queer and trans people. Her work is a blend of the natural and the material, the subtle and the stark. While her work captures the power and resilience of the queer community, it also puts the beauty and elation of that community front and center. It’s easy to use the word “unapologetic” when describing her work, but it is perhaps more uncompromising. It doesn’t aim to make viewers comfortable as much to celebrate the people inside the frame — whether in a film or photograph.
Tourmaline also serves as a historian and archivist, often telling stories of people who have since passed but left lasting impacts on the social and civil rights for many. Her work educates and liberates and, at the base of it all, does so with elegance and luxury.
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Satti is a ceramic artist who originally hails from Sudan and Somalia, though she was raised between France and Kenya. She now calls New York home. She puts the concept of ritual at the center of her work. Not only in the meditative process and commitment she makes to producing her pieces, but also designing work that fits into our daily rituals in the home. She takes cues from indigenous practices like grain pounding, incense burning, table offerings, and spiritual cleansing.
Sharing much of East African traditions, she says she creates using “deep listening,” a way for her to get in touch with the ancestors who paved the way in working with earthen clay and dirt to make the first objects and vessels by which civilizations and communities were built. Her work is a translation of that listening, one to bring personal ritual into tangible object.
An American photographer and filmmaker, Wright’s work has an intrinsic and evocative tenderness. Her work feels like Sunday afternoons of childhood. Muted explorations of self. Gentle giggles looking through thin sheets at the world that surrounds you. Listening from under the table as someone is chopping onions for supper. Her perspective behind the lens is somewhat childlike. Not naive, but harnessing the innocence through which we take in the world around us and make sense of it. She combines words and snippets of authority figures (Aretha, Audre, bell) and ties them to her everyday experiences: a life led by being Black and in a woman’s body.
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“Power to the God Within” is a frequently used affirmation and mantra within Jojo Abot’s work. As a multidisciplinary artist, musician, and designer, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what Jojo Abot does besides create. From music videos and quick Instagram stories to woven tapestries and body art, she uses any and all possible avenues to communicate her art to the world.
Jojo Abot’s work is about self-belief, self-reliance, self-care, pleasure, and surrender. It is in the recognition of beauty within all of us. She highlights the impossible histories that converged to allow us to be here on this Earth at this time and in this way. Her pride is infectious and undeniable, as are the affirmations she weaves through her practice.
Jordan Casteel is a genius — a real, true 2021 MacArthur Genius at the age of 32. So let’s just get that out of the way. Casteel is a painter who seeks to capture the everyday, the natural comings and goings of people simply being people. Many of her paintings are of subjects she meets or observes on the street — say sleeping on the NYC subway or perched outside a corner store — but others are stolen moments of intimacy. Family portraits of generations, the careful placement of magazines on a grandmother’s bedside table. In these paintings, Casteel captures the essence of “still life.” We can construct the world around which these moments happened, hear the child squealing in her mother’s lap or hear the kettle whistle in the background while that grandmother is preparing her tea before retiring to her bed and her magazines. Casteel’s paintings broaden our world by focusing on the details of it.
Her technique is eye-catching as well. Somewhat geometric and stilted, her colors feel like they shouldn’t naturally blend and yet they do. Her works come to life as eyes scan them, filling in the blanks, creating movement and, perhaps most excitingly, making it difficult to place Casteel’s work in any specific era. She shows people, as they are, in the environments they find themselves in and, by putting it to canvas, she makes all those people and moments important.
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The virtue, heritage and care in Black hair is of such incredible importance to Black women. Susan Oludele and her team do not take the task lightly. Her work is vibrant and lively while harnessing a gentle elegance and strength. Known as “Hair by Susy,” Oludele is a Nigerian American who specializes in creating masterpieces of hair. Whether its color, braids, bobs, twists, locs, cornrows, updos, accessories or whatever you want to serve as your body’s north star — Oludele creates with simplicity and beauty.
It’s no wonder why some of the most iconic people have worked with her. People whose own work challenges gender norms and elevates beauty standards to the cosmos. You’ve seen her work on such famous têtes as Jeremy O’Harris, Rico Nasty, Princess Nokia, Zoë Kravitz, Solange and Beyoncé.
Nereya Otieno is a writer, thinker and ramen-eater currently based in Los Angeles.