Artists at the Center: Celebrating Black History Month

Hear Black artists speak about their life and work in a selection of videos

Mickalene Thomas, Portrait of Mnonja, 2010, rhinestones, acrylic, and enamel on wood panel, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment, 2011.16, © 2010, Mickalene Thomas

SAAM’s website and physical spaces hold artworks and resources aplenty to take a deep dive into the presence and impact of African American artists on our world. In honor of Black History Month, here are a few of our favorite videos of artists speaking about their life, work, and inspiration.

In search of more resources and art? SAAM is home to one of the most significant collections of works by African American artists in the world. Browse artworks, more videos, and other resources on our highlights page.

Bisa Butler

Explore the multilayered historical meanings and stories behind Bisa Butler’s monumental quilted portraits. Butler blends the line between art and craft and portrays Black life and cultural identity with striking originality. Learn more about how Butler’s matrilineal sewing legacy, patrilineal Ghanaian roots, and the AfriCOBRA art movement resonate in her inventive quilting technique. She also shares how the current Black Lives Matter cry for racial justice and COVID-19 have influenced her present and future work.

Sonya Clark

Sonya Clark discusses how her work speaks to intersecting themes of history, race, and culture in the United States. Clark is joined in conversation by Nora Atkinson, the Fleur and Charles Bresler Curator-in-Charge of the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. From human hair and combs to flags and U.S. currency, Clark utilizes unconventional craft materials to create powerful artworks that inspire reflection on who we are individually, collectively, and as part of an imperfect nation. Clark also discusses how the global pandemic and compounded challenges of 2020 shaped her creative practice.

Fred Wilson

Fred Wilson has left his mark on the American and international art and craft world through his innovative installations and sculpture that challenge assumptions of history, culture, race.  In this engaging discussion, he traces his artistic career and process through many decades, mediums, and techniques.  Wilson is known for his examination of museum practices, starting with his landmark intervention Mining the Museum (1992–93).  By exploring how objects and cultural symbols are displayed in museums and reframing them in new ways, Wilson alters traditional interpretations and encourages viewers to reconsider how they see history.

Kerry James Marshall

One of the leading contemporary painters of his generation, Kerry James Marshall has become internationally known for monumental images of Black history and culture. In this video, Marshall discusses the intent behind his painting SOB, SOB, and looks closely at the different elements—from the books on the shelves to the clothing that the figure wears. Dominated by visually powerful Black figures, Marshall confronts viewers and challenges the field of art and art history, which is still grounded in European works and portrays mostly white figures. In doing so, he shifts the narrative of the painting but also the broader narrative of American art.

Mickalene Thomas

In these "Meet the Artists" videos, Mickalene Thomas discusses the unlimited creativity that comes with the use of non-traditional and craft materials. She examines the Black artists that were influential in her career and the importance of seeing oneself represented in museums. In the second video, Thomas explores her most iconic work, Portrait of Mnonja.