African American Art at VMFA

African American Art at VMFA

Discover VMFA's growing collection of works by African American artists!

African American Art, American Art
Subject Area:
African American
Activity Type:
Gallery Guides & Hunts


VMFA has a growing collection of works by African American artists, including those highlighted here. The collection features work by early American and modern and contemporary artists. With such a vast arc across time, these works collectively underscore dramatic shifts in the artistic, social, and political landscape and their impact upon creative expression.  This guide represents only a fraction of the works on view by African American artists. To explore more of VMFA’s holdings please visit the African American Art Featured Collection page. 

Please visit the Modern and Contemporary Art and African Art Collection pages to explore more works that represent the wider African Diaspora and VMFA’s commitment to presenting artists of color from across the globe.

21st CENTURY ART - Atrium

A Small Band, Glenn Ligon

“I had to, like, open the bruise up and let some of the blues . . . bruise blood come out to show them.”—Daniel Hamm

Ligon has become one of the most influential artists of his generation. Working in a variety of media, from painting to neon sculpture and installations, he presents a raw examination of culture and social identity mediated through the lens of history, literature, iconic works of art, and material culture.

The title of this work is extracted from a quote by Daniel Hamm, imprisoned as part of the famed “Harlem Six” or “Blood Brothers,” a group of young black men wrongly accused of murder in 1965. Hamm and four other members of the group—Wallace Baker, William Craig, Ronald Felder, and Walter Thomas—were eventually exonerated. Robert Rice however remains incarcerated, serving a life sentence. In a statement shared a few days following his release from police custody, Hamm spoke publicly about the brutality he experienced at the hands of prison guards.

Hamm’s quote is particularly poignant against the current social landscape in which incidents of police violence against and wrongful incarcerations of young African American men have continued to rise.

AMERICAN ART - 2nd floor

Doubled-handled Jug, David Drake

One of only twenty-nine identified, signed, and dated poem wares by enslaved potter David Drake, this jug evidences Drake’s ability to read and write. Although a few slaves were taught to read in the early decades of the 19th century, the practice increasingly became illegal in the period preceding the Civil War. Drake’s overt use of writing—and his owner’s acceptance of it—was a defiant gesture that proclaimed his identity during an era when his individual status was not acknowledged.

Tired, 1943, Samella Sanders Lewis (American, 1924-2022), painted plaster. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, gift of Elizabeth Cornellia Davis, 2023.793

Tired, Samella Sanders Lewis

In 1941 Samella Sanders Lewis accompanied her professor and mentor, Elizabeth Catlett, when the two transferred from Dillard University in New Orleans to Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) in Virginia. Lewis adopted Catlett’s interest in sculptural representations of African American women in everyday life. As a college student herself, the artist likely empathized with the weary expression of the sculpted woman, who slumps sideways while reading a large book. Tired was first displayed at VMFA in 1944 in an exhibition of artwork by Virginia college students, in which the sculpture was singled out for praise.

Dressing Bureau, Thomas Day

This dressing bureau demonstrates Thomas Day’s unique variation on the Classical Revival, a furniture and architectural style prevalent throughout the United States between 1830 and 1860. While the form draws on the published designs of Baltimore architect John Hall, Day enhanced its basic “pillar and scroll” motifs in the bureau’s stylized, somewhat whimsical mirror supports. A closely related bureau was produced by Day as part of a suite commissioned by North Carolina governor David Reid.

The Quarry, Robert Seldon Duncanson

The focal point of The Quarry is a bold cliff that rises above a waterfall’s pool. Beyond other rock formations, a field dotted with haystacks and a village at the foot of distant mountains appear indistinct with atmospheric haze. In an otherwise bucolic setting, a plume of factory smoke suggests technological and economic development.

Duncanson was a free African American who established an international reputation during the tumultuous decades surrounding the Civil War. Self-taught, he came to the attention of abolitionist leaders, who sponsored his study in Europe. By 1861, the Cincinnati-based artist was hailed in the American press as “the best landscape painter in the West.” At the height of his career, Duncanson successfully toured his paintings in England and Scotland. Self-exiled in Montreal during the war, the artist also helped launch a Canadian landscape movement.

Child Reading, James A. Porter

The painter and art historian James Porter may be best known for writing the first history of African American art and for his distinguished teaching career at Howard University in Washington, D.C. He probably painted Child Reading around 1945 in Haiti or Cuba, while on sabbatical from Howard. The girl’s tilting torso and downcast eyes suggest her immersion in the book. Porter had an academic interest in childhood development, which he expressed as early as 1933 in an essay about the creative and intellectual powers of young people. The girl in Child Reading, in turn, offers a visualization of the artist’s belief in the power of the humanities, reading, and critical thinking as ways to nurture children.

Christ and His Disciples on the Sea of Galilee, Henry Ossawa Tanner

To capture the mystery and drama of the story of Christ calming the waters, Tanner created this small but powerful image. Frightened passengers brace themselves against the roiling sea in the bottom of the boat. Before them, a nearly transparent figure of Jesus stands with outstretched arms as distant clouds begin to break.

The Pittsburgh-born Tanner had exhibited to great acclaim at the prestigious Paris Salon for almost a decade by the time he produced this scene. As an African American artist, his professional acceptance in the United States was hampered by racial restrictions. “I cannot fight prejudice and paint,” he announced before departing for Europe in 1891.

Booker T. Washington, Richmond Barthé

A leading figure of the 1920s New Negro Movement, otherwise known as the Harlem Renaissance, the Mississippi-born Richmond Barthé studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago before relocating to Manhattan in 1929.

These striking busts—of famed political leader and educator Booker T. Washington and acclaimed Black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar—belong to Barthé’s 1928 portrait series of eminent African Americans, which also included depictions of the artist Henry Ossawa Tanner and historical political leader Toussaint L’Ouverture. Both works may have been featured in the exhibition American Negro Artists, sponsored by the Harmon Foundation. Established in 1922, the foundation was the first to support and promote the work of African American artists through juried exhibitions.

Cousin-on-Friday, Leslie Bolling

Self-taught Virginia sculptor Leslie Bolling gained renown in the 1930s and 1940s for his hand-carved genre figures. Many, like this compelling pair (2006.246 & 44.2.1), feature a lively flickering surface that gives evidence of the artist’s penknife.

Bolling found his themes in the daily activities of friends and neighbors. Cousin-on-Friday is one of seven sculptures from the artist’s Day of the Week series, which pays tribute to the labors of an extended family of women. Most link a domestic chore – such as laundry, mending, or baking – to the day it was traditionally performed. Although this tiny worker is portrayed scrubbing a floor on hands and knees, her mouth is open in song. The humorously titled Saver of Soles presents an industrious cobbler, depicted in such detail that one can see the laces on his wingtip shoes.

Working as a store porter by day and carving his figures at night, Bolling was discovered in the late 1920s by New York tastemaker Carl VanVechten. He soon gained sponsorship of the Harmon Foundation, the first major organization dedicated to the promotion of African American art. In the following decade, his carvings were featured in national art shows and magazines. Although Bolling slipped into obscurity in the final years of his life, he is now included in most major surveys of African American art.

Coming Home from Work, John Biggers

An enormously influential painter and educator, John Biggers is well-known as a highly accomplished muralist, sculptor, draftsman, and printmaker. Coming Home from Work depicts a woman sandwiched between two wooden shanties, pausing as she walks from the compressed foreground along a path depicted in red, fire-like hues. Coloration is important in the work; glowing purples and recurring greens, blacks, silvers, and grays highlight the specific and individualized nature of figure and setting alike. The stockings, dress, and jacket reveal the figure’s anatomy and point to the arduousness of simply walking after a long day’s work (the sloping red lines suggest a tilted plane the woman must ascend). Some of the symbolism is more literal however: the nearly depleted bag she holds, the hanging pan and empty pail, and the outhouse with open door all point to a life of difficulty.

Catfish Row, Jacob Lawrence

In 1947 the celebrated modernist Jacob Lawrence received a commission from Fortune magazine to depict African American life in the so-called Black Belt, a broad agricultural region of the Deep South. The artist spent a few weeks that summer traveling to Memphis, Vicksburg, and New Orleans, as well as various communities in Alabama. Catfish Row is one of ten temperas resulting from Lawrence’s journey, all painted on his return to New York. This dynamic painting, with its overall mood of abundance and pleasure, depicts the shared preparation and consumption of food in Black communities that offered some respite from the hardships of racial discrimination in the postwar years.

Marian Anderson, Beauford Delaney

Delaney painted this iconic portrait of the acclaimed contralto Marian Anderson, whose operatic talent and integrity inspired a generation. In this “memory” portrait—produced in Paris but with an awareness of the civil rights struggles underway in the United States—Delaney expressed his ongoing admiration for Anderson’s sensitive brilliance as a performer and person. The visual harmony of the work epitomizes his exploration of painterly abstractions, with the color yellow symbolizing perfection and transcendence.

MID-TO-LATE 20th CENTURY ART - 2nd floor

"Lazy Gal" - "Bars", Louella Pettway

Gee’s Bend, later named Boykin, is located southwest of Selma, Alabama. The area is not only rural but isolated. Bounded on three sides by the Alabama River, Gee’s Bend was once home to numerous cotton plantations named after their owners, including Gee, Bennett, Pettway, and Irby. Many of the quilters were and are direct descendents of enslaved Africans who took the surnames of these plantation owners. Living in unheated shacks, Gee’s Bend women made quilts for warmth and utility. Drawing upon aesthetic legacies, creative vision, and patterns from the world around them, these quilters have constructed some of the most iconic textiles of the African American South.

Roseate Mist, Norman Lewis

“It was foggy, and the sky and water catalyzed so that you could not see the point where they fell together. Fog, this ethereal filter, fascinated me. It became the dominant undertone in much of my painting then.”—Norman Lewis

Throughout his career, Lewis sought to reconcile his impulse to paint abstractly with the expectation that an African American artist’s work should reflect his or her racial identity. The Abstract Expressionists, with whom Lewis associated, used color, line, gesture, and form to communicate universal experiences, transcending nationality, ethnicity, or race. On the other hand, African American intellectuals of the time advocated using art to construct and affirm African American identity. While Lewis was influenced by these ideas, too, by the mid-1940s he freed his artwork of social and political opinions, which he associated with illustration or propaganda. However, he remained socially aware and politically active in the struggle for African American equality.

Untitled, Howardena Pindell

This stenciled painting is one of Pindell’s first large-scale works to include hole-punched circles directly on the surface. The few scattered dots foreshadow a significant change in her work—hole-punched circles that cover entire surfaces of her canvases.

Untitled, Sam Gilliam

As an artist working in abstraction, Gilliam has defied the categorization. while aligned with Washington Color Field, he embraced chance, experimentation, and African American traditions in this work. This painting comes from a larger series inspired by maps and aerial views of American cities. With his canvas placed on the floor, Gilliam uses a rug rake to pull acrylic paint into his desired pattern. He works on several paintings at the same time, then cuts out sections of various canvases that he collages onto other areas.

Concerning Of Cities American, Gilliam has said, “As an artist, I never felt I was lost in distinctive style. Of Cities American is, of course, a painting, a proof. I introspectively tried to look at Cubism in terms of direction, cities/seeing, and map plans. I looked, I sought an aspect of fusion. This painting became a ‘hold’ on what I thought. Sometimes an artist just goes through it, rather than explaining it. I felt that much of my painting has been fixed on this ability to make a different kind of field, acknowledging Johns, Hartley, and possibly, Pollock. Of Cities American is a found space, continent, enclosure. It was a point of growth for me and a very vital aspect of searching and knowing, and unknowing.”

Forsythia and Pussy Willows Begin Spring, Alma Thomas

Forsythia and Pussy Willows Begin Spring provides an iconic example of Alma Thomas’s widely acclaimed painting style of the 1960s and 1970s. An avid gardener, Thomas frequently painted the flowers from her colorful backyard. Here, she included the bright yellow forsythia blossoms and pussy willow catkins that serve as early signs of spring. Although abstracted, Thomas’s work evokes the beauty of nature through her precise dabs of vibrant color placed in a successive vertical grid.

Screaming into the Ether, Gary Simmons

That hopelessness, that feeling of screaming and not being heard . . . it’s a common feeling felt by a lot of folks. That’s the genesis of where Screaming into the Ether came.”Gary Simmons

Through an erasure process that is central to his painting method, Simmons blurs early 20th-century cartoon illustrations rooted in racist stereotypes, including those by Looney Tunes and Disney. In applying this visual distortion, Simmons evokes the warped misperceptions historically projected onto Black bodies while rejecting early cartoon animators’ stereotypical and denigrated representations of Blackness. Here, Simmons depicts the Looney Toons character Bosko, a caricature based on American minstrelsy who was presented throughout American theaters in the 1930s and beyond. Simmons animates him as a protagonist in the ongoing narrative of racial and social strife. His ghostly figure lingers like the residue of so many racist characters in our collective imagination and memory.

21st century art - 2nd floor

Winged, Michael Richards

“…..the concept of flight as both freedom and surrender all attempt to open a metaphorical space into which the viewer can be seduced. This space allows for an examination of the psychic conflict which results from the desire to both belong to and resist a society which denies Blackness even as it affirms.”Michael Richards

On September 11, 2001, the 38-year-old Jamaican-American artist Michael Richards was in his studio on the 92nd floor of the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York City when he perished in the terrorist attack that came to be known as 9/11. The art world lost one of its most promising and gifted talents, a sculptor who explored the history of the African Americans struggle for civil rights in his work.

Remarkably, in 1999 Richards had completed a sculpture entitled Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian that consists of a life-size cast made from his own body in the guise of a Tuskegee Airman impaled by eighteen World War II airplanes, thus foreshadowing his own death two years later. Flight was a recurrent motif in Richards sculpture. In Winged, feathers pierce casts made from the artist’s own arms and the shadow behind the suspended form extend like the wings of a bird. Richards poetically described the idea of flight as “the idea of being lifted up, enraptured, or taken up to a safe place – to a better world.”

Untitled (Sound Suit), Nick Cave

“That incident was so profound in terms of how it made me feel. I felt that I needed to do something, as a Black male living in this country. That’s when I knew that there was a shift in my purpose.”—Nick Cave

Trained as a visual artist as well as a dancer, Nick Cave began making objects for performance in response to the 1992 televised beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles. The assault captured by a passerby, brought into stark reality for Cave the liability of being Black and male in the United States. That year, Cave began the Soundsuit series—sculptural objects made to be worn and activated. Comprised of ordinary materials that range from sequins to human hair, buttons, feathers, wire, and other accumulated objects, Cave has striven to create a sense of familiarity while framing representations of social and material culture.

His Soundsuits serve to convey many concepts simultaneously and many of the finished pieces bear some resemblance to African ceremonial costumes and masks. Cave regularly performs in the sculptures himself, dancing either before the public or for the camera, activating their full potential as costume, musical instrument, and living icon.

Glass Lantern Slide Pavilion, Theaster Gates

Considered a “social practice” artist, Gates culls his artistic materials from crucial aspects of his larger enterprise, Rebuild Foundation, whose stated mission is to “transform under-resourced communities.” For nearly a decade, Gates has been renovating properties on South Dorchester Avenue on Chicago’s Southside, where he lives and works. Using reclaimed materials, he has built a complex of residences interspersed with community spaces. In turn, he repurposes materials from these renovations to make art objects, the sale of which fund further renovations forming a circular system Gates calls “an economy of opportunity.”

Here salvaged wood from buildings in Dorchester form walls where Gates has embedded the rolled form of a fire hose—a historical reference to the hoses used against protestors during the civil rights movement and to America’s racist housing policies of the past. Four found teacups allude to Gates’s fascination with ceramics as a central theme of transformation. A potter by training, Gates has described pottery as “the magic of taking the lowliest material on earth— mud—and turning it into something beautiful and useful.” Likewise the placement above of art-history slides suggests a literal reading of “high and low” culture, further highlighting his choice to utilize rough, humble materials as the foundation of his practice.

Untitled (from the Crossroads installation), Alison Saar

Alison Saar is a contemporary sculptor, mixed-media, and installation artist and her work Untitled (from the Crossroads installation) has taken on various meanings over the years, depending on the context of its surroundings.  Despite the different interpretations, one very consistent observation about Saar’s sculpture is its strong connection to African sources, specifically minkisi figures (power figures that are typically found in parts of central Africa).  Many of Saar’s artistic choices reflect her desire to honor these sacred ancient traditions from Africa.  For example, Saar’s decision to use metal cladding, nails, and the industrial debris at the figure’s feet not only points to minkisi, but is also a nod to Ogun, the Yoruba orisa (deity) of iron (Yoruba Culture, Nigeria & Republic of Benin).  Saar’s figure is elevated from the ground, standing on a metal platform, as if it were a statue on an altar.  Interestingly, altars are considered spaces where this world and the spirit realm coincide, for the purpose of offering guidance, similar to minkisi.

Great Hall - Level 2

Willem van Heythuysen, Kehinde Wiley

“A big part of what I’m questioning in my work is what does it mean to be authentic, to be real, to be a genuine article or an absolute fake? What does it mean to be a real Black man? Realness is a term applied so heavily to Black men in our society.”—Kehinde Wiley

Wiley’s lavish, larger-than-life images of African-American men play on Old Master paintings. His realistic portraits offer the spectacle and beauty of traditional European art while simultaneously critiquing their exclusion of people of color.

Wiley’s Willem van Heythuysen quotes a 1625 painting of a Dutch merchant by Frans Hals, whose bravura portraits helped define Holland’s Golden Age. Wiley’s model, from Harlem, New York, here takes the name of the original sitter from Harlem, the Netherlands, whose pose and attitude he mimics. Despite the wide gold frame and the vibrantly patterned background whose Indian-inspired tendrils encircle his legs, this subject’s stylish Sean John street wear and Timberland boots keep him firmly in the present and in urban America.

PHOTOGRAPHY - 3rd floor

Red Jackson, Harlem, New York, Gordon Parks

This photograph by Gordon Parks, the first African American staff photographer for Life Magazine, was part of his 1948 photo essay “Harlem Gang Leader.” The story centered around Leonard “Red” Jackson, the leader of the Midtowners gang and Parks’ photographs probed the lives and constraints on young gang members with both empathy and sorrow. Here, an introspective Jackson, fresh from attending a friend’s funeral and following an ambush by a rival gang, gazes outside a broken window, alert for signs of violence. The shattered, filmy window functions as a metaphor for the world in which Jackson operates: narrow, dangerous, and broken. 

Senior Citizens, Ming Smith

In this moody, soft and lonely picture, curtains muffle the light from two large picture windows, all the better to see the world through the ultimate picture window: the television set in between them. Its watcher is signified only by a pair of aged legs, one tenderly wrapped in a bandage.  A member of the Black photography collective Kamoinge, Ming Smith frequently used shadows, blur, or partial, elliptical modes of representation to establish a dialogue between visibility and invisibility, perhaps as a way of respecting the privacy of her subjects.

Artists Interviews

Howardena Pindell @ VMFA

A conversation with the renowned abstract, multidisciplinary artist about her life and her work with Valerie Cassel Oliver of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and Naomi Beckwith of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.

Chester Higgins @ VMFA

Photographer Chester Higgins sees his “life as a narrative and [his] photography as its expression.” Friday, Feb 16, 2018.

Julie Mehretu @ VMFA

Artist Julie Mehretu talks about the concepts, processes, and implications of her "Stadia" series, including "Stadia III" in VMFA's permanent collection.

Alison Saar @ VMFA (1993)

Hear and see what major artists have to say about their works and concepts in their own words. These concise videos–2 to 3 minutes–are historic interviews recorded one-on-one by VMFA in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Artist Talk | LeRoy Henderson

LeRoy Henderson discusses his life and work documenting American protest culture with Dr. Sarah Eckhardt, Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, on Thursday, February 16, 2017 at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Hank Willis Thomas @VMFA

American artist Hank Willis Thomas discusses his work and the construction of black identity through popular culture.

The interview was conduced by John B. Ravenal (Syndey and Frances Lewis Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art), VMFA.

Lorna Simpson @ VMFA

Hear and see what major artists have to say about their works and concepts in their own words. These concise videos–2 to 3 minutes–are historic interviews recorded one-on-one by VMFA in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Radcliffe Bailey @ VMFA

Artist Radcliffe Bailey talks about his artistic process and what he hopes his art conveys. Come see "Vessel" in VMFA's permanent collection.

Robert Pruitt @VMFA

American artist Robert Pruitt discusses his inspirations, his process, and elements of the absurd in this artist talk.

Kehinde Wiley @ VMFA

Produced to accompany the exhibition, "Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic," this video series features the artist himself discussing his background, work, process, philosophy, and art historical influences.