Rethinking the Art History Syllabus to Include Black Women

By Shemi Frezel, Art Contributor

Rethinking the Art History Syllabus

I absolutely loved my art history classes as an undergraduate, but I always felt like there was something missing. At the beginning of every art history course, I excitedly scanned the course syllabus. I wanted to see what artists would be covered throughout the semester and every time there was a blaring exclusion of women artists of color. Sure we covered Frida Kahlo and Jean-Michel Basquiat but I often wondered how does the art created by black women fit into art historical movements? Judging from my course syllabi, one might think people of color simply did not make art. It was not until graduate school that I took it upon myself to learn about the impact of black women artists. My education took place outside of classrooms and beyond the hallowed hall of the world’s oldest museums.

The following are a list of five black artists who are women that if I could, I would undoubtedly include on a syllabus about modern and contemporary art. Each of these artists  worked within and beyond the established conventions of art to create work that is both beautiful and ripe for analysis. Of course, there are countless black women like Faith Ringgold, Kara Walker, Lorna Simpson, Carrie Mae Weems, Wangechi Mutu, MaPo Kinnord-Payton and Julie Mehretu who have  created work that I greatly admire and work that has taught me invaluable lessons about art making. These five artists are just a small representation of the wealth of creative production from black women. For me, their work was the missing link to truly see myself reflected in contemporary art. I am happy to have found them.

Alma Thomas 1891-1978 Abstract Art

End of Autumn,  1968, Acrylic and graphite on canvas.Image Courtesy of


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The invention of the camera in the mid-1800s had a huge effect on art. Many artists moved away from strict representational art and began to experiment more with abstractions of images. This shift from representational to abstract is evident in the work of artists at the tail end of the 19t century through the 20th century. One of those artists is Alma Thomas who was born in 1891 and became Howard University’s first fine arts major in 1922. In the late 1950s, Thomas abandoned the realist style of painting and began exploring abstract art through a focus on color and geometric shapes. The result was paintings that show an awareness of her white male counterparts like Josef Albers, Kenneth Noland, and Wassily Kandinsky. Thomas’s decision to paint abstractly means that her work is not readily associated with her race or gender but rather reflective of her spirit as an artist. Thomas was the first black woman to receive a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in 1972. Barrack and Michelle Obama recently added Thomas’s Resurrection painting to the White House’s family dining room.

Toyin Odutola b.1985 Portraiture


All these garlands prove nothing VI,2012, pen ink and marker on paper. Image Courtesy  


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Hailing from Ife, Nigeria though artistically trained in Alabama and California, Toyin Odutola uses her art to raise questions of identity and the manipulation of skin color as a societal notion. Odutola’s signature work consists of a single figure drawn with black ink set against a white background. In person these small scale drawings are truly awe inspiring; up close the viewer gains an understanding of how Odutola used various shading and line creation techniques to give these works texture and depth. Portraiture has been a common artistic practice for centuries, most readily associated with 17th century European artists like Vermer and Remembrant, but Odutola takes a new approach to portrait making that seems to highlight similarities over differences. Regardless of their actual race, all of Odutola’s subjects are drawn in black ink and viewers are inclined to take a closer look at the works in order to make meaningful distinctions. Her work demonstrates the fragility of race in the absence of clear skin color indicators. By approaching every portrait with the same raw materials, Odutola’s work seems to strengthen the idea that perhaps there are more similarities among people than there are differences.

Mickalene Thomas b. 1971- Mixed Media

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       Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman, 2012, installation. Image Courtesy

Heavily informed by a 1970s aesthetic, Mickalene Thomas’s work leaves an indelible impression on viewers. Thomas works in a range of mediums including: painting, photography, video, mixed media, and installation. Influenced by artists like Henri Matisse, Edouard Manet, David Hockney, and Romare Bearden, Thomas takes cues from these artists to create paintings and photography that celebrate the beauty of black women, a subject matter virtually unheard of in art history courses. Her paintings are often composed of rhinestones, acrylic, and enamel giving them a collaged appearance. Thomas’s mother, Sandra Bush, served as her muse until her death in 2012.That same year Thomas created the film Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman in which Bush discusses her troubles with addiction, her relationship with Thomas, and how it felt to be featured in her daughter’s works. The film was distributed through HBO it is also a piece of an installation bearing the same name. The installation consists of a living space created by Thomas with all the trappings of the 1970s including wood paneling, wallpaper, and colorful pattern upholstery. Mickalene Thomas brings her own aesthetic sensibility to established artistic conventions to create work that consistently puts black women in the position of muse challenging art historical beauty ideals.

Naomi Wanjiku Gakunga b.1960 Sculpture

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Together They Marched, 2014 Corrugated sheetmetal and stainless steel wire. Image Courtesy of


Kenyan artist Naomi Wanjiku Gakunga creates intricate sculptures that hang from walls. Gakunga’s work is informed by her environment and is often created from everyday materials common in Kenya. From a distance her sculptures have a textured appearance of various color panels, up close it becomes clear that these works are made from woven materials like tin cans, steel wire, and sheet metal. Gakunga pays homage to her community by elevating their construction materials to the level of art and using basket weaving techniques in her sculptures. Gakunga’s use of found or everyday objects in her art is similar to the approach of artists like Robert Raushenberg. Ultimately Gakunga’s work exhibits her version of the art making concept of re-purposing materials to create something striking and new.  

Chandra McCormick b. 1957 Photography  

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Ascension, 1988, Gelatin Silver Print. Image Courtesy

Born and raised in New Orleans, Chandra McCormick’s photographs artfully reflect the culture of her hometown. McCormick works closely with her husband, Keith Calhoun, and together they created L9 Center for the Arts in 2007. Since the 1970s McCormick has used her photography as a way to commemorate and memorialize elements of life in New Orleans specifically and Louisiana more generally. Her work depicts the activities of social aid and pleasure clubs, second lines, and perhaps most notably life at Louisiana’s Angola State Penitentiary. McCormick’s black and white photographs are powerful because they successfully reveal the spirit of her chosen subject matter rather than just existing as images of cultural practices. Her work offers viewers a lens into aspects of culture and society that are often private, not readily experienced, or loosely ritualized. McCormick’s photographs document life in Louisiana in a way that is never voyeuristic and position her in the role of facilitator in a conversation that takes place between the subjects of her images and the viewers. There is a sense of dignity in the stories McCormick tells through her art.


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