How to understand Black art across the diaspora


Art has always been a vital part of
Black Liberation Movements.

This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal. - Toni Morisson

Art creation has always been vital to Black liberation movements. Photographers have captured critical moments of change and have risked arrests and injury to document the resilience of activists and protesters as they advocate for justice. Artwork has been used to provide parallels between movements of the past and present. Artists provide new perspectives, visual languages and help us envision new ways of living. History of Black liberation is archived in many forms and knowing the history of art across the Diaspora is crucial to understanding the nuanced struggles of Black folk.

This project will be highlighting the role of art across the Diaspora and how it has been shaped by movements for justice. ISE-DA presents: The Art of Black Liberation. 

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The United States

Perhaps the mission of an artist is to interpret beauty to people - the beauty within themselves. - Langston Hughes

 The Amistad Murals, Mural No.1, The Revolt, 1938 

   Oil on canvas  
  Hale Woodruff  

The Harlem Renaissance

1918 - mid 1930’s

 The pulse of the Negro world has begun to beat in Harlem
-  Alain Locke

The Harlem Renaissance (or the New Negro Movement) was an intellectual, artistic and social movement that occurred in the early 20th century. The Great Migration saw African-Americans leaving the South to move to Northern cities. With an economic boom and an increase in industrial job opportunities, the North was also considered to provide a more racially tolerant society.

Harlem was a popular city many African-Americans moved to and became a cultural epicenter that encouraged artistic expression, experimentation, and community. This era of rebirth provided a new sense of pride in their Blackness, which was expressed through music, literature, and art. While other cities such as Chicago and Los Angeles also expreienced a cultural explosion, Harlem was a focal point for this new era.

Chicago Black Renaissance

1930’s - 1950’s

I only had my brushes to fight with 
- Charles White

Dissimilar to the Harlem Renaissace, the Chicago movement did not have an influx of wealthy patrons. Instead, Black working-class individuals found support and community with each other, mixing visuals and sounds from the Southern migrants in with the culture of the Chicago residents. Notable artists include Charles White, Margaret Burroughs, Archibald Motley Jr., and Elizabeth Catlett. 

Flower Sniffer, 1966

Oil on canvas
Emma Amos

Central and South America 

Son de La Artesa, 2004 

   Oil on canvas  
  Maria Auxiliadora de Silva

Cultura Afro-Brasileiro

1936 - present

In 1936, enthusiastic about the movements in favor of black consciousness going on in Brazil, cultural icon, Solando triad founded the Cultura Afro-Brasileiro (Afro-Brazilian Culture Center) in Sao Paulo. He did so with the help of poet Ascenso Ferreira, painter Barros (Miguel Barros), and writer José Vicente Lima. This collective aimed to seek Afro-Brazilian expression in the arts in addition to promoting the dissemination of black intellectuals and artists in Brazil. 

The founder of the Cultura Afro-Brasileiro believed in liberation for Black Brazilian through education and cultural development. In its founding document, the organization proclaims: “We will not do race fights, but we will teach black brothers that there is no superior or inferior race, and what makes them distinct from each other is cultural development. These are legitimate wishes that no one in good faith can refuse to cooperate with.”

Centro Cultural Cimmarrón

1995 - Present

Multi-generational, Afro-Mexican arts collective Centre Cultural Cimmarrón was formed in 1995 in El Ciruelo, Oaxaca. Initially, the organization served as a summer arts workshop for children in Black communities across Oaxaca and Guerrero. Now, their role has transformed into art educators and social justice leaders promoting Afro-Mexican ethnicity and presence. Artists of this collective each have their own unique style but develop works celebrating and giving a voice to Afro-Mexican histories.

This collective is active in political and community organizing, attending conferences such as The Meeting of Black Peoples on the Oaxaca Coast with other organizations like Mexico Negro AC. It is at events like these where they strengthen their mission and community process with others, furthering their goal to intertwine art and further pride in Afro-Mexican heritage.

Son de La Artesa, 2004 

   Oil on canvas  
  Aydee Rodriguez Lopez  

The Caribbean

Tranfinite Passage, 1990 

   Oil on canvas  
Patrick Warsing Chu Foon

The Art Society of Trinidad and Tobago

1943 - present

The Art Society of Trinidad and Tobago, previously known as the Trinidad Art Society, is the oldest established art organization in the Caribbean. The NGO was founded in 1943  by painter Amy Leong Pang and watercolorist Sybil Atteck and born out of the idea that instead of being accessible to a privileged few, art should be available to all. Their work was pivotal in transforming the culture of Black art consumption in Trinidad and even garnered the involvement of artists from neighboring countries.

Because of  The Art Society of Trinidad and Tobago, art was included in the country’s school curriculum, and art scholarships were made widely available. Today the Society seeks to nurture artists of all ages and stages in their process, emphasizing promoting and educating emerging artists.

The Working People's Art Class (WPAC)

1945 - 1956

The Working People's Art Class (WPAC), founded by artist Edward Rupert Burrowes in 1945, was the first established art institution in the colony of British Guiana, now the country of Guyana. Edward Burrowes was the only teacher and gave classes on traditional Western artistic methods in any available time to anyone who chose to attend.

The WPAC was an institution where common working people could develop their artistic skills and increase their awareness of the country and its peoples. As well as teaching the people art history and appreciation, the WPAC contributed to developing a national consciousness. The WPAC continued until 1956.

Dawn and Evening Star (Olmec Maya series), 1982 

   Oil on canvas  
  Aubrey Williams  


Les Fiances

Wifredo Lam

The Négritude Movement

1930s - 1960s

Négritude was an anti-colonial cultural and political movement that sought to assert pride in African cultural values as a response to European colonial thinking. “Négritude" was coined by Francophone Caribbean poet Aime Césaire in 1930s Paris. Césaire founded and led the movement alongside French Guianese poet Léon Damas and the future Senegalese President Léopold Sédar Senghor.  The movement sought to reclaim the value of Blackness and African culture.

Négritude served as not only a theoretic framework but also an aesthetic concept. The artists of the movement leaned heavily on Surrealism which made way for the creation of Afro-Surrealism, a concept that influenced many of the visual artists associated with Negritude like Afro-Cuban artist Wifredo Lam.

The Négritude Movement also birthed the 1966 World Festival of Negro Arts. This festival provided an unprecedented opportunity for black artists, musicians, writers, poets, and performers to participate in a global examination of African culture. This event allowed the space for tribal art in Africa to be perceived globally as art and led to the beginning of the international art movement.

Black Girl

   (1966 film)  
Ousmane Sembène

Third Cinema

1960/1970s - present

Third Cinema is a political project and aesthetic that has guided filmmakers in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. It is an anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist, and anti-Hollywood protest using film as its medium. Originating in South America, Third Cinema quickly became popular with African filmmakers who additionally found strong affinities with the struggle for cultural, political, and social liberation.

Ethiopian scholar Teshome Gabriel was considered an expert on film and cinema from Africa and the developing world. He was additionally considered "one of the first scholars to theorize in a critical fashion about Third World cinema”, with some of his notable books including  “Third Cinema in the Third World: The Aesthetic of Liberation.” Gabriel outlined a three-phase path along which films have developed in Africa, Asia, and South America:

1. Assimilationist films such as those of Bollywood
2. Films with local control of production, that discuss local history and culture but romanticize the past
3. Films where production is not in the hands of local elites, but the hands of people where film is an ideological tool for socio-political and cultural transformation.

Third Cinema films question structures of power, particularly that of colonialism and colonial legacies. Their political and social critiques aim to challenge their viewers and increase social consciousness about issues of nationhood, power, identity, and global oppression. By presenting lived experiences and not imagined experiences, Third Cinema reveals the hidden struggles of women, indigenouse groups, impoverished communities, and minorities to demonstrate the present legacies of colonial pasts. Third Cinema encourages the reimagination of being and urges its audience to conceive new possibilities and models.