What is Black Art?

Greg Perkins, President and Founder of AAE


Definition and Overview

Black art constitutes a very diverse legacy, although many observers have a habit of generalizing what black art is.  We are talking about a continent that is filled with civilizations, people, and societies, each of which has a special culture.  Defining black art also requires that you take into consideration the art of the African Diasporas, which includes the art of African Americans.

Thematic elements

Despite all the diversity, there are some artistic themes that are unifying in nature when you are considering the totality of the African continent from the visual culture.  Black art contains 5 thematic elements as follows:

Emphasis on the human body – the human body has always been the focal point of most African art.

Emphasis on the performing arts – much of traditional African art that you find is crafted for use in performing contexts instead of static ones.  It is an extension of the three- dimensionality and utilitarianism of traditional African art.

Emphasis on sculpture – African artists have always favored three-dimensional art forms over two-dimensional ones.

Nonlinear scaling – oftentimes, a small portion of an African art design will be similar in appearance to a larger one.  This is also described in fractal geometry terms.

Visual abstraction – rather than favoring naturalistic representation, African art tends to favor visual abstraction.  This is because black art generalizes stylistic norms.

Black art history

Black art has been influenced by cultural backgrounds of Africa, Europe, and the US.  The more common or traditional black art of the African-American community includes:

  • woodcarving
  • quilting
  • pottery
  • plastic arts
  • paintings
  • basket weaving

Black art has been a vital contribution to US art and has played a significant role in it from its early origins in the slave community to the end of the 20th century.

From the 17th to 19th century in the US South, black art came in a wide diversity of forms including the following:

  • ceramic vessels
  • quilts
  • small drums
  • wrought-iron figures

Most of these black art pieces displayed the characteristics and similarities of Central and West African crafts, the primary areas of the continent where many skilled African artists were captured as slaves and brought to the US.  During the slavery period, white slave owners purchased these African artisans.

Artists such as the Baltimore portrait painter Joshua Johnson and the New England engraver Scipio Moorhead created black art that displayed Western European overtones.  Many slave owners allowed these artists to keep some of the wages they earned from their crafts.  In many cases, they were able to save enough money to buy their own freedom as well as the freedom for their children and spouses.

Black Art in Print

African American Expression offers a wide selection of Black art depicted on a variety of products and greeting cards.

Get tips for finding Black art and start collecting today.


African American Expressions, the largest black-owned greeting card company in America, began by selling three designs of African American Christmas cards, featuring African American art. AAE now sells over 2,500,000 cards annually of over 250 original designs, featuring black art and celebrating black history. Read more..

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