As part of our coverage of culture and the arts, we’ve turned our eye to the Black and African American artists. They are among the most sought-after and most highly regarded in the world right now. We’ve compiled a separate list of those who are truly in the stratosphere, and whose work commands high six, seven or eight-figure prices. They are the rising and breakout star artists to know in the contemporary art world right now who are African American or part of the Black Diaspora. They aren’t quite at those rarified levels yet – but they may very well be soon.
26 Black Breakout Stars to Celebrate Now in Contemporary Art
There’s always lots of buzz and chatter about who the hot artists are in the contemporary art space – and for some, then the rush is on to add new names to their collections. At prices that are sometimes head-spinning. To which we say: yay! It’s a good moment when funds go into the pockets of people creating brilliant work that speaks to the soul. Even if you aren’t a collector, knowing the names and the work of the luminaries who are either rising stars or who have already achieved breakout status as contemporary artists is a perfect way to know the gallery and museum shows that are going to be worth your time.
Leveraging our own experiences as collectors and synthesizing the views of gallerists and culture reporters, here’s our take on the rising and breakout star artists to know in the contemporary art world right now who are African American or part of the Black Diaspora. If you haven’t heard of them yet, now’s your moment to discover some incredible work.
1. Alvin Armstrong
Alvin Armstrong’s work explores the social and political landscape of Black American culture. His paintings are often filled with real and fictional subjects, culled from archival material and his lived experiences. Of particular note are his images of Black athletes in sports as disparate as track & field and horse racing. His use of rich, saturated colors in unexpected juxtapositions makes these works timelessly beautiful. And yet poignantly of this moment.
The self-taught artist had his New York solo debut exhibition in Fall 2020. His first Chelsea solo show, To Give and Take, was presented at Anna Zorina Gallery in May 2021. He is a Visual Arts Resident at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn in 2022.
2. Raphaël Barontini.
Raphaël Barontini, who lives and works in Paris and is represented by powerhouse gallerist Mariane Ibrahim, “finds inspiration in paying homage to the legacies set by figures of historical movements for liberation.” In portraits of real and imagined figures from the Caribbean and Africa, his technique combines photography, silk screen printing, painting, and digital prints. Excavating the past for stories of often unsung heroes, he brings them to vibrant life.
In 2020, Barontini was chosen by LVMH Métiers d’Art to complete a residency in Singapore. He is the forthcoming Artist in Residence at Villa Albertine, New Orleans.
3. Sanford Biggers
A Los Angeles native currently working in New York, Sanford Biggers creates interdisciplinary artworks. Including installations, sculptures, drawings, performances, videos, and music. These are the mediums through which he explores everything from Buddhism to African-American identity to art history. He describes the practice as “code-switching.” “To have there be layers of history and politics, but also this heady, arty stuff—inside jokes, black humor—that you might have to take a while to research if you want to really get it.”
Biggers may be best known to New Yorkers for his monumental Oracle commission, which was installed at at Rockefeller Center in summer 2021. At the time, it was the largest work in Biggers’ ongoing Chimera series, which consists of hybrid sculptures that merge mythology and history. Biggers works have been featured in shows at Tate Britain, the Whitney Museum and the Studio Museum in Harlem. As well as in solo exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum of Art and Mass MoCA.
4. Diedrick Brackens
L.A Based textile artist Diedrick Brackens, represented by the Jack Shainman Gallery, is acclaimed for his work crafting tapestries, and for his innovative weaving techniques. The artist begins his process through hand-dying cotton, a deliberate choice “to pay tribute to those who came before me.” His vibrant woven tapestries explore African American and queer identity, as well as American history.
Along with typical commercial dyes, Bracken utilizes pigments from wine, tea and bleach to create his abstract and figurative works. In 2018, Brackens was awarded the Joyce Wein Prize by the Studio Museum of Harlem. His work When No Softness Came (2019) was acquired by the Brooklyn Museum.
5. Shawanda Corbett
Visual and performance artist Shawanda Corbett is a polymath whose multifaceted practice spans ceramics, visual art, dance, film, and performance. Her work explores the question of what is a “complete body”, using her perspective as a woman of color with a disability to root theory into reality.
To the Fields of Lilac, her first solo exhibition in the U.S. in 2022, Corbett produced a series of ceramic vessels in varying hues of violet. The exhibition’s title was meant to signal “a further narrative that thinks about what happens beyond ‘Wade in the Water’, the spiritual originally sung by slaves on their quest for freedom.” Alongside these sculptural objects the gallery displayed several abstract paintings translating the artist’s memories of childhood in vivid colors and thick black lines, shapes, and forms.
6. Kenturah Davis
Kenturah Davis is an artist working between Los Angeles and Accra who earned her BA from Occidental College and MFA Yale University School of Art. Using text as a point of departure, she explores the fundamental role that language has in shaping how we understand ourselves and the world around us. Her emotionally piercing drawings, particularly those of Black women, are astounding.
At her 2021 exhibition (A)Float, (A)Fall, (A)Dance, (A)Death at Jeffrey Deitch in New York, large-scale drawings showed figures shifting and drifting against a backdrop of texts embedded in the paper. The technique is meant to suggest that “the structures that shape our experience in the world extend from the ways we use language.” Each of these drawings include text from the debates that took place during the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment of the US Constitution. The Senate transcripts are impressed into the multiple panels that make up each image.
The text adds layers of meaning to each image. As the artist notes, the words define “a concept of freedom by virtue of abolishing slavery on the condition that one is not a criminal. The debate exemplifies a framework that, on the one hand facilitates freedom, and simultaneously facilitates confinement.” You can see her work on the Crenshaw/LAX rail line of the LA Metro; she received a commission to create large-scale, site-specific work that is now permanently installed.
7. M. Florine Démosthène
M. Florine Démosthène, who lives and works in Tulsa, Oklahoma and New York, has a distinctive style that is at once dreamy and provocative. The artist “considers the Black female body to be a vessel of collective experience.” The figures in most of her work are composed of glittering marble-like skin, and frozen in the midst of a metamorphosis. As her gallerist Mariane Ibrahim notes, her work invites the view into a “science-fiction dimension where Black female heroines are paramount.”
Démosthène’s work can be seen at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, among other institutions, and is also held in many important private collections.
8. Chase Hall
Chase Hall is a rising star known for his portraits and representational depictions of Black life. His signature technique is painting with drip-brew techniques derived from coffee beans and acrylic pigments on cotton supports. The use of brewed coffee carries powerful symbolic weight since it evokes centuries-old geopolitical systems associated with the commodification of a plant native to Africa.
Hall will be the subject of a solo exhibition at the SCAD Museum of Art in Savannah, Georgia from February 28 through July 17, 2023. In 2022, Hall was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera to produce a large-scale artwork for its opera house in New York. His monumental diptych, Medea Act I & II, is on view at the Met Opera through June 2023. His work is in the permanent collections of institutions including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; The Studio Museum in Harlem; and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
9. Lauren Halsey
LA=based artist Lauren Halsey produces standalone artworks and site-specific projects, many of which are set in the South Central neighborhood of Los Angeles, where her family has lived for several generations. Combining found, fabricated, and handmade objects, Halsey has had solo exhibitions at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the David Kordansky Gallery; Fondation Louis Vuitton; and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.
Halsey has been commissioned by The Metropolitan Museum of Art to create a site-specific installation for the museum’s Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Roof Garden. Titled the eastside of south central los angeles hieroglyph prototype architecture (I), the installation will open in spring 2023. She was also invited to design a capsule collection of sneakers, socks and tees for Nike. The shoes were “a remixed version of the brand’s Air Force 1 High style,” the same one the artist reports she’s been wearing most of her life.
10. Sedrick Huckaby
Sedrick Huckaby was born in Fort Worth, Texas. There, he studied at Texas Wesleyan University. He later transferred to Boston University, earning a degree in studio art, and an MFA from Yale University. Huckaby is best known for his portrait painting style, in which he applies thick layers to canvas in a technique called impasto. Many of the portraits are of members of his family and everyday Black people in the community. While his smaller works are stunning, Huckaby is best known for his monumental paintings, such as A Love Supreme, for which Huckaby was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship.
Huckaby’s distinctive style is so compelling that former President George W. Bush enlisted Huckaby as his art teacher. He has received numerous honors, in addition to the Guggenheim award, including a Joan Mitchell Foundation Grant, an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, and a Lewis Comfort Tiffany Award. His work was included in the 2022 Kinship exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. Huckaby and his wife Letitia are the co-Founders of Kinfolk House, a collaborative project space that inhabits a 100-year-old historic home once owned by Huckaby’s grandmother, in the predominantly Black and LatinX neighborhood of Polytechnic in Fort Worth.
11. Joy Labinjo
Joy Labinjo is a British–Nigerian artist based in London, England. Born in 1994, she is known for her large colorful figure paintings with flattened perspective that take inspiration from her collection of old family photos, found photos and historical archives.
12. Tyler Mitchell
Tyler Mitchell is a artist, photographer and filmmaker based in Brooklyn. Mitchell is probably best known for his cover photo of Beyoncé for the cover of Vogue. He was the first African American to shoot the cover photo of American Vogue and a portrait from this series was acquired by The Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery for its permanent collection. He received his B.F.A. in Film and Television from NYU Tisch School of the Arts.
Mitchell’s work across all mediums is characterized by visual representations of Black life that emphasize empowerment, play and self determination. Many of his photographs are inspired by pastoral and domestic scenes from his upbringing in suburban Georgia. His work is also in the collections of LACMA, the High Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
13. Carmen Neely
Carmen Neely holds a Master’s in Fine Arts from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. An abstract expressionist painter, she creates gorgeous collages that are visual translations of memories into gestures. She collects memories, objects and phases, and incorporates them in her work.
Neely’s work is included in the collection of The University of North Carolina, Charlotte. And Plattsburgh State Museum of Art, New York. Neely is currently an adjunct professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her new work will be shown in a solo exhibition at Mariane Ibrahim Gallery Chicago in Summer 2023.
14. Kambui Olujimi
Kambui Olujimi was born and raised in Bedford-Stuyvesant Brooklyn and received his MFA from Columbia University in New York City. The multidisciplinary artist is particularly skilled at using delicate watercolors and European-style frames while portraying contemporary acts that cut to the bone. For example, in Canopy, 2021, the image of a Confederate monument is being prepared for removal by a Black woman in a white hard hat.
This work and others in the series When Monuments Fall are bracing views of a specific moment in several countries. The moment when monuments erected to the glory of European colonizers starting coming down. And when the acts and values they stood for were seen in a new and unflattering light. A moment when it seems that anything is possible. What will take the place of these once iconic monuments? And who gets to decide? Olujimi’s works have premiered at the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. And Mass MoCA.
15. Frida Orupabo
Frida Orupabo, an artist and former social worker, was born in 1986 in Sarpsborg, Norway. Drawing images from eBay, Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram, and online colonial archives, she stitches seemingly disparate worlds together in collages that provoke and sometimes disturb. Most of her subjects are Black women, and she lives among them in her studio, which also doubles as her home.
In a 2020 interview with The Paris Review, the artist speaks about the driving force behind many of her works. “I am interested in creating works that show the ambivalence and complexities that often get left out in representations of Black people. Is it possible to show a naked body without it being objectified and sexualized? Can you portray Black anger without it being generalized?” Of her 2022 solo show at Nicola Vassell Gallery in Chelsea, the Brooklyn Rail wrote: “Orupabo’s exhibition reads as a cartography of Black femme precarity, delicately pinned up by the resolve to survive.”
16. Ebony G. Patterson
Ebony Patterson was born in 1981 in Kingston, Jamaica, and received a BFA in painting from Edna Manley College of Visual and Performing Arts in 2004. Patterson then continued with her education and received an MFA degree in Printmaking and Drawing from the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts.
Her pieces of work include explorations of race, class, pageantry, act of violence and genre in the context of “postcolonial” spaces. These works include a range of multiple media which include sculpture, photography, video, and tapestry.
Her first solo show was in 2015 at the Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. This solo show was a large-scale presentation of the vision of masculinity in “postcolonial” Jamaica.
Lately, the idea of the garden, both imagined and real, has formed a vital part of Patterson’s work. People become immersed in her gardens which can be seen in art exhibits around the world.
17. Lauren Pearce
Lauren Pearce, a multi-media artist, was born in 1988 in Cleveland, Ohio, and began her professional career as an artist at the age of 24. She uses a variety of materials in her work and creates murals to bring forth the exploration of identity, race, and womanhood while expressing her Jamaican heritage. On these murals, she uses free-hand drawings in a variety of sizes that are portrayed in vivid colors.
She is widely known for her work on The Art Wall, a rotating art space on Public Square, that was portrayed in the Fall of 2018. Every quarter, a new artist is chosen to represent their work on this wall.
18. Cheryl Pope
Cheryl Pope received her BFA and Master’s in Design from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She currently is an Adjunct Full professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and her pieces of work question and respond to the issues of identity and focus on race, history, power, class, and gender. These pieces of her work are represented by Monique Meloche Gallery.
Her solo exhibition was seen in 2022 at both Monique Meloche Gallery and the Ulrich Museum of Art and she was selected in 2023 in group exhibitions in the Michigan State University Broad Museum, Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, NY, the Flag Art Foundation in NYC, and Gallery II in Tel Aviv.
19. Robert Pruitt
Robert Pruitt was born in 1975 in Houston, Texas. He received his BA from Texas Southern University and an MFA from the University of Texas at Austin. He is known for drawings and videos that explore the historical and contemporary experiences of identity, the black body, and African Americans. He creates a series of fictional portraits that include references to hip-hop, Black political struggles, and traditional cultures to represent the past, present, and future.
His latest solo exhibitions have been seen at the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston in 2006, The Studio Museum in Harlem in 2013, and the California African American Museum, in Los Angeles in 2019.
20. Enrico Riley
Enrico Riley was born in Waterbury, Connecticut in 1973, and is currently a Professor of Studio Art at Dartmouth College. The Vermont-based artist received a BA in Visual Studies from Dartmouth College. And an MFA in painting from Yale University School of Art. Riley has garnered numerous honors, including a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship. Represented by the Jenkins Johnson Gallery, Riley’s paintings “investigate violence and hope in historical and contemporary cultural traditions in African American culture. The artist uses formal techniques . . . including fractured bodies, hidden figures, ambiguous environments, and cropped frames. About his new body of work, Riley has stated, ‘I’m interested in the materiality of paint, the expressive potential of painted images and issues around black identity and visibility.'”
21. Tschabalala Self
Tschabalala Self works in the mediums of painting and printmaking to explore ideas about the Black body. She constructs depictions of predominantly female bodies using a combination of sewn, printed, and painted materials. In an interview with The Guardian of London, Self explains the origin of this focus. “Self was in her early teens when she started to notice how Black women’s bodies were treated in popular culture. ‘This was the early 2000s, the era of music videos and video vixens,’ she says, referring to Black women who performed as backup dancers for male artists. Self took inspiration from the racialized, objectified and hyperbolic representation of these so-called hip-hop honeys.”
A site-specific work displayed in London’s Coal Drop Yards was also a multi-layered examination of the perceptions of the bodies of Black women. Seated is a sculpture of an everyday Black woman sitting on a chair. But as The Guardian notes, the work succeeds in “throwing up questions about such seemingly straightforward things as a Black woman taking up space or the act of sitting itself. ‘To be seated is relatively simple,’ the artist says, ‘but it can also be political.'”
22. Paul Anthony Smith
Visually magnetic and yet obscuring, Jamaican born artist Paul Anthony Smith uses a technique called “picotage.” Using a ceramic tool to pick away at surfaces of photographic prints, Smith achieves a geometric pattern over images he has personally photographed.
With this method, Smith questions the potential of a photograph to retain and tell the truth of one’s past. In addition to several solo and group shows throughout the country, Smith’s work has been acquired by numerous public collections. Including the Minneapolis Institute of Art and the Blanton Museum at the University of Texas.
23. Adrienne Elise Tarver
Adrienne Elise Tarver received an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a BFA from Boston University. Currently, she teaches at Pratt Institute and serves as the Director of Programs at the National Academy of Design in New York. She is known for delicate watercolors that depict scenes of Black women surrounded by lush vegetation. Tarver also famously painted Namesake, 2021, an image of a plantation on fire. Research led her to the story of the former Tarver Plantation, which was owned by Henry Tarver from 1850 until 1897. Hundreds of enslaved people farmed his acres of land. The depiction of the house engulfed in flames is meant to depict “a moment of rebirth through great destruction.”
Tarver’s latest body of work, featured in an exhibit in Los Angeles this spring 2023 in conjunction with Frieze LA, is called To Learn The Dark. The work is inspired by the writing of bell hooks, and builds on “Tarver’s interest into the multitudinous nature and invisibility of Black women. These artworks consider darkness as space, identity, and a tool to embrace the possibilities of freedom, joy, and growth.”
24. Charmaine Watkiss
Charmaine Watkiss was born in 1964 in London, United Kingdom, and received her MA in Drawing at Wimbledon College of Art in 2018. Her pieces of art include narratives that are connected to the African Caribbean diaspora and then placed onto female figures. These narratives represent themes of cosmology, mythology, ancestry, tradition, and ritual.
She had her first solo exhibition in 2021. Here she researched the herbal healing traditions of Caribbean women while connecting the traditions back to their roots in Africa. In 2022, she traveled to Southwest France where she completed a 6 week residency. This residency allowed her to explore ecology and nature. As she returned, she was chosen as a commissioned artist for the 12th edition of the Liverpool Biennial 2023. Here she focused on life-sized drawings and sculptures.
25. Kandis Williams
Kandis Williams was born in 1985 in Baltimore, Maryland, and received her BFA from the Cooper Union in New York, New York. She is a visual artist whose pieces of work include collage, performance, writing, publishing, curating, and sculpture. These pieces explore critical theory around race, authority, and nationalism while relaying how culture and myth are connected.
She is the co-founder of Cassandra Press, an educational platform for Black Feminist scholarship that was founded in 2016. Here, the artist publishes various topics including Black Twitter and double consciousness, as well as other topics that interest her.
Recently, in 2021, Williams was the artist of the Mohn Award which honors artistic excellence. Some of her work has been featured in group exhibitions which include The Museum of Modern Art in New York, Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Germany, and Hammer Museum in California.
26. Michaela Yearwood-Dan
Michaela Yearwood-Dan was born in 1944 in London, United Kingdom, and received her B.A. from the University of Brighton in 2016. Her pieces of work focus on representing the queer community and feminity through paintings, ceramics, sound installations, and murals. She uses abstract forms to form vivid colors of ranges, pinks, purples, and blues to represent her work.
Michaela Yearwodd-Dan has participated in a variety of fellowships and residencies. In 2022, she created her first public mural in London, United Kingdom.
Black Breakout Stars to Celebrate in Contemporary Art
Those are just some of the rising and breakout star artists to know in the contemporary art world. They are artists to know right now who are African American or part of the Black Diaspora. There are many more, and we hope this will inspire you to discover the work that speaks most deeply to you from one of these incredible talents.