Sometimes we look at figurative paintings in order to better understand ourselves. We visit museums and galleries to get a glimpse of portraits that appear to gaze back at us—we engage them in a silent back-and-forth, an unspoken negotiation. The Mona Lisa (ca. 1503–19) seems to tease us with a condescending smirk; in Las Meninas (1656), Infanta Margarita Teresa stares us down with an imperial glare; and the Girl with a Pearl Earring (ca. 1665) locks eyes with us as she slightly parts her lips. When we look up at these portraits, we can’t help but feel that these figures are exalted or majestic or one step away from godliness. But how are we ever supposed to see ourselves, to truly engage in that silent exchange, if the subjects of these paintings never resemble us?
Historically, it has been difficult for members of the African diaspora to see ourselves represented in such paintings. However, this is beginning to change as contemporary artists like Kerry James Marshall, Kehinde Wiley, Amy Sherald, Henry Taylor, Jordan Casteel, and a number of others are at the forefront of the genre. The increased visibility for black figurative painters has led to a shift in the dialogue around painting and identity, and has given more black artists the opportunity to showcase their work in places where they had previously been excluded. Importantly, there is a wide swathe of young and lesser-known black artists pursuing figurative painting today, ensuring the longevity and richness of this thriving tradition while also building upon it. Here, we feature 10 of these artists, each of whom offers a fresh, thoughtful approach to painting the human form.
B. 1988, Baltimore, Maryland. Lives and works in Baltimore.
Jerrell Gibbs’s paintings highlight important memories, often depicting people with whom he has significant relationships. “I choose to highlight the people who are important to me; ordinary, hardworking, loving people,” Gibbs said. “They’re real moments. I believe it’s important in an age of social media, where everyone posts about their ‘best,’ that all aspects of life should be significant, not just the most extravagant.”
Even when the figures in Gibbs’s paintings appear to be posing, they still seem carefree. They aren’t overly concerned with their bodies; their features aren’t airbrushed with Photoshop’s spot-healing tool. They position themselves in ways that aren’t rigid or controlled. In the painting It’s You (2020), a woman glances downwards in her pink sunglasses, holding a glass of red wine in one hand as she playfully shows off her black-and-yellow spotted dress, one leg peeking out from a thigh-high slit. She appears to be aware that someone is watching her or taking her picture; her pose is unguarded and proud.
Gibbs’s paintings are also distinctive in their use of loose, playful lines. “What draws me to an illustrative style are my childhood memories of play and drawing,” Gibbs said. “Those were my most free moments, and when I paint, I like to get back to that mental space of play and leisure.”
B. 1994, Dagenham, United Kingdom. Lives and works in London.
Joy Labinjo’s work explores different aspects of the African diaspora and pays homage to her British-Nigerian identity. “I felt that it was really important for me to explore my identity. Not necessarily just for me, but for all of us from the diaspora,” Labinjo said. “I was thinking a lot about feeling somewhere in between Britain and Nigeria and wanted to explore that.”
Many of Labinjo’s paintings explore these themes in nuanced ways. Her work The Elders (2018) shows five people sitting next to one another at what appears to be a family gathering; a man in the painting looks off into the distance, while most of the women in the painting look straightforward. Labinjo applies color in sharp, discrete blocks.
“I describe the way my figures look with the clean lines and the obvious change in skin tone as instinctive,” Labinjo said. She noted that her brushstrokes aren’t visible because she’s “more interested in using paint to create interesting images rather than using the materiality of paint as the interesting thing.” Recently, Labinjo’s work was featured in the 2019 Focus section at Frieze London with Tiwani Contemporary.
B. 1971, Ziguinchor, Senegal. Lives and works in Keur Massar, Senegal.
Swirls, abstract patterns, and warm colors characterize Kassou Seydou’s paintings. For example, RED BANTAMBA (L’ARBRE À PALABRES ROUGE) (2018) shows two purplish-brown figures that are enveloped in yellow spirals; we register the figures, but we are also forced to contemplate the surrounding atmosphere. “For me, painting is an essential means of expression, a way of communicating with the rest of the world; my immediate neighbors, as well as potential distant spectators,” Seydou said. “So it seemed quite natural to me to use forms, motifs, and figures that everyone can identify and appropriate, whatever the context in which my painting is seen.”
The compositions of Seydou’s paintings often feel associative—figures float in space next to lines and objects. The figures themselves are, at times, coated in washes of soft colors—greens, yellows, and purples—that we often wouldn’t find on healthy human skin. But these compositional elements are also closely tied to the deeper, contextual meanings of these paintings: “The influence of the colors and patterns that populate my work have their origin in my African daily life, where there is an incredible sensory diversity—the smells, the warmth, the bright colors, the patterns of the clothes,” Seydou said. “All these things correspond to an imagination attached to Africa, sometimes in a slightly caricatured way, but often with a background of truth.”
B. 1989, Washington, D.C. Lives and works in New York.
Arcmanoro Niles’s paintings are electric. His figures are backlit by vibrant hues, like luminous oranges, reds, and blues. In Another Stranger (2019), he douses a woman’s eyes in fluorescent pink. She looks at us inquisitively, her head cocked to the side, as she lies down on what looks like a brightly patterned red carpet. She implicates us—like many of the other characters in his paintings do, too.
Niles’s exhilarating figures—which are often based on friends, family members, or himself, and draw on historical portraiture—have not gone unnoticed. His 2019 show “My Heart is Like Paper: Let the Old Ways Die,” at Rachel Uffner Gallery, received press from publications including the New York Times and Cultured magazine. Many of the works in that show deal with themes of loss and disappointment; some paintings feature people in somber interactions. And Niles isn’t slowing down. This month, he opens a solo show at Los Angeles’s UTA Artist Space.
B. 1984, Los Angeles. Lives and works in Los Angeles; New Haven, Connecticut; and Accra, Ghana.
Kenturah Davis paints pictures with her words, making emphatic marks by applying oil paint with stamp letters. Her portraits encourage the viewer to contemplate the power of language because each line is imbued with a deeper meaning; form becomes intertwined with content. “I kept a notebook with my own writing and some quotes from other texts; occasionally, I’d do a small sketch,” Davis said of her decision to include words in her paintings. “On one particular page, my writing overlapped with a portrait that I sketched, and I realized that the quality of the written line was no different than the quality of a drawing line, except with the written line, we’ve assigned meaning to a sequence of marks made on the page.”
“Every mark had meaning and affirmed or embodied something relevant to the person in the image,” Davis continued, describing how she chooses the words in her paintings. “Over the years, I’ve chosen different kinds of text that exemplify ways that we put language to use.”
In 2020, her work will be featured in L.A. metro stations as a part of the Crenshaw/LAX Transit Project, which will also show the work of artists such as
Gerald Lovell’s paintings lean into texture. He encrusts the skin of his subjects with thick layers of paint, placing broad strokes of burnt sienna next to ochre to create the illusion of shade and light. But everything else—the clothes, the objects, the backgrounds—are flatter and more traditionally rendered. “The palette work did come from experimentation. I was actually on YouTube (which has taught me Photoshop, Illustrator, and how to cook a good ramen) looking up different methods for oil paint application when I came across impasto painting, and it just appealed to me,” Lovell said. “The instructor was painting bell peppers and I just thought to myself, ‘It would be interesting to try to render a face that way.’ So I painted the first painting that way and I just stayed with it.”
This layering makes his paintings dynamic. There’s a sharp contrast between the background and the foreground, which makes the viewer want to focus on the faces of his subjects. “My works are compilations: layers upon layers of paint, giving way to form and depth. I paint as a documenter,” Lovell wrote on his website. “Painting in three dimensions best conveys my narrative. The thicker the paint, the more emphasis on the object.”
Lovell’s untraditional blend of painting techniques has recently attracted more attention, and in 2019, he had his first solo show, “Sylvia, Sylvia,” at Atlanta’s The Gallery | Wish. Later this year, Lovell will have a solo show in New York at P.P.O.W.
Somaya Critchlow makes small paintings—some so small that they could fit in your hand. Her pint-sized figures are bathed in browns and greens, earthy colors that create a sense of warmth. The tiny scale of these paintings invites the viewer to look—really look—at the artist’s fine use of detail, an important aspect of her work.
Critchlow ponders themes including race, sex, and culture. “My work developed quite personally as self-portraits and imagined portraits of women,” Critchlow has explained. “Even though my paintings are quite stylized, it is literally the observation that’s gotten me there.”
TBT (2019) shows a topless black woman with a large afro. One of her legs is propped up on a plush grey chair, and she looks straight at us while she holds a mug. Critchlow challenges the especially fraught history of the female nude; the woman here doesn’t just lie down, passive, like the titular character of
Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538). Rather, she stares us down with agency, aware of us and unwavering.
Wangari Mathenge’s paintings often show people caught in a particular moment. Maybe they’re drinking a cup of coffee, like the woman in Coffee At Cassell’s (2019), or gazing wistfully at something beyond the frame, as in The Cacophony of Silence (2019). Some of her figures are based on herself or pictures of family members.
“I’ve heard comments about how empowering and inspiring it is for black people to see themselves reflected this way,” Mathenge said. “However, for me, painting is merely an expression of myself, a form of catharsis. Currently, it takes the form of figurative painting, but if it ever morphed into abstraction, it would still feel the same to me—something of me that I offer to the world unsolicited.”
Mathenge’s work, which featured in a solo show at Roberts Projects in fall 2019, is instantly recognizable because of the artist’s vivid color palette—which calls to mind the paintings of Alice Neel—and energetic swirls of paint. “I enjoy expressive brushwork,” Mathenge said. “It’s the one part of painting that is always a surprise, as it is often dictated by mood and energy.”
The environments that people occupy are important to Tajh Rust’s paintings. In Sleep (Day Dreaming) (2018), three people—a father, a small child, and a pregnant woman—recline on a tan couch. Seemingly mundane objects in the work, like a crocheted doily draped across the couch or the translucent curtains in the background, seem just as thoughtfully rendered as the figures themselves. “I think about how people relate to the spaces they’re in,” Rust said. “I’m very conscious of how my body occupies different spaces; where I feel most comfortable; where I feel most uncomfortable.”
Rust noted that some of his works don’t incorporate people. “Some may consider these works abstract, but for me, I think everything I do is representational,” he said. “There is always a reference to the social or the visual, whether the figure is rendered by me or not.”
B. 1993, Zimbabwe. Lives and works in London.
Kudzanai-Violet Hwami’s paintings offer personal reflections on her family and upbringing in South Africa. Many of her paintings show individuals in fantastical scenarios, with abstract shapes and blocks of color hovering midair. The works seem to blend surrealism with reality, collage with painting. One example is Eve on Psilocybin (2018), in which a woman, presumably on psychedelic mushrooms, reclines on a large tan-and-green surface as large circular shapes hover behind her. She smiles with her eyes closed, like she’s caught in a pleasant dream.
Hwami layers colors and patterns over one another; she places photographs next to paint and creates an uncanny interplay between different textures and media. Mother’s Cloth (2017) is a striking piece featuring a figure at the center of the painting, sitting next to a reference photograph. Here, we can see the clear points of departure from photography, the areas where Hwami decided to lean into abstraction.
Header image: Arcmanoro Niles, “Go Home to Nothing (Hoping for More),” 2018. Courtesy of the artist and Rachel Uffner Gallery.