Black History Month 2023: Art and design

Highlighting the impact of Black Americans in art and design

February marks Black History Month, offering an opportunity to reflect on the oft-overlooked achievements of Black Americans in our society.  At the MIT Press, we welcome the chance to consider our own efforts in amplifying diverse voices and stories—both where we have made strides over our years of work, and where we may still fall short.

Today we turn our attention to art and design, and explore the cultural impacts of artists like Kara Walker, Hugh Hayden, and more. Read on to explore books that highlight Black achievement in these fields and more.

Cover of A Black Gaze, featuring a photo of a Black woman facing the camera with her chin slightly raised. Her face is dimly lit from the left, shrouding the rest of her face and body in darkness.

A Black Gaze: Artists Changing How We See by Tina M. Campt

In A Black Gaze, Tina Campt examines Black contemporary artists who are shifting the very nature of our interactions with the visual through their creation and curation of a distinctively Black gaze. Their work—from Deana Lawson’s disarmingly intimate portraits to Arthur Jafa’s videos of the everyday beauty and grit of the Black experience, from Kahlil Joseph’s films and Dawoud Bey’s photographs to the embodied and multimedia artistic practice of Okwui Okpokwasili, Simone Leigh, and Luke Willis Thompson—requires viewers to do more than simply look; it solicits visceral responses to the visualization of Black precarity.

Cover image of In the Black Fantastic, featuring a photo of aBlack woman with intricately braided hair waving straight up in the air. The woman wears a black body suit and turquoise necklace, and has her hands pointed in front of her as if she is casting a beam of light out of her palms. She stands in front of an image of the night sky.

In the Black Fantastic by Ekow Eshun

A richly illustrated exploration of Black culture at its most wildly imaginative and artistically ambitious, In the Black Fantastic assembles art and imagery from across the African diaspora. Embracing the mythic and the speculative, it recycles and reconfigures elements of fable, folklore, science fiction, spiritual traditions, ceremonial pageantry, and the legacies of Afrofuturism. In works that span photography, painting, sculpture, cinema, graphic arts, music and architecture, In the Black Fantastic shows how speculative fictions in Black art and culture are boldly reimagining perspectives on race, gender and identity.

Cover image of Decolonizing Design, featuring an illustration of author Dori Tunstall in black and white. Dori wears round floral earrings, black rimmed glasses, and a polka dot collared shirt, and looks at the viewer with a slight closed-mouth smile. This illustration is seated inside a maroon mandala design featuring graphic designs of triangles, dots, and zig zags.

Decolonizing Design: A Cultural Justice Guidebook by Elizabeth (Dori) Tunstall 

From the excesses of world expositions to myths of better living through technology, modernist design, in its European-based guises, has excluded and oppressed the very people whose lands and lives it reshaped. Decolonizing Design first asks how modernist design has encompassed and advanced the harmful project of colonization—then shows how design might address these harms by recentering its theory and practice in global Indigenous cultures and histories. For leaders and practitioners in design institutions and communities, Tunstall’s work demonstrates how we can transform the way we imagine and remake the world, replacing pain and repression with equity, inclusion, and diversity—in short, she shows us how to realize the infinite possibilities that decolonized design represents.

Cover image of Kara Walker, featuring one of Walker's pieces of art. In this particular work, a black outlined image of a woman lays in repose on the ground, facing the righthand side of the image. The woman's body is arranged like a cat or a Sphinx, with her arms stretched in front and her legs curled at the base of her spine.

Kara Walker edited by Vanina Géré 

Kara Walker’s work and its borrowings from an iconography linked to the fantasized and travestied history of American chattel slavery has been theorized and critiqued in countless texts throughout her career. Critical interpretations of her work have been shaped by the numerous debates on the very discussions it generated. How, then, do we approach a work that has been covered by such “thick theoretical layers”? This collection is unique in emphasizing Walker’s work itself rather than the controversies surrounding it. These essays and interviews survey Walker’s artistic practice from her early works in the 1990s through her most recent ones, from her famous silhouette projects to her lesser-known drawings and lantern shows, stressing the full range and depth of her remarkable body of work.

Cover image of Hugh Hayden, featuring a close-up photo of the dark brown bark of a tree. "HUGH" is carved into the tree in all-capital letters.

Hugh Hayden: American Vernacular edited by Sarah J. Montross

Hugh Hayden is best known for creating hand-hewn wooden picnic tables, fences, and chairs from which countless tree branches seem to grow maniacally outward—as if nature herself is lashing out in self-protection from these unthreatening icons of leisure and domesticity. These artworks probe at the inequities of home and land ownership across race and class, speaking to the enduring legacies of enslavement that pervade American culture. This pioneering study of Hugh Hayden’s work includes over 75 full-color images of the artist’s remarkable, labor-intensive sculptural practice over the past decade, as well as critical essays by curator Sarah Montross, Dr. Mark Anthony Neal, Carmen Maria Machado, and an interview between the artist and curator Horace Ballard, PhD.

Cover of Carrie Mae Weems, featuring a photograph by Weems showing a Black woman sitting at a butcher block table with a vanity mirror poised in front of her. She stares at the camera with a slight, closed-mouth smile. A man in a fedora stands behind her where she sits at the chair and leans in toward her ear.

Carrie Mae Weems edited by Sarah Elizabeth Lewis

In this October Files volume, essays and interviews explore the work of the influential American artist Carrie Mae Weems—her invention and originality, the formal dimensions of her practice, and her importance to the history of photography and contemporary art. Since the 1980s, Weems (b. 1953) has challenged the status of the Black female body within the complex social fabric of American society. Her photographic work, film, and performance investigate spaces that range from the American kitchen table to the nineteenth-century world of historically Black Hampton University to the ancient landscapes of Rome.

Cover of How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness. The cover features the title and author name and an image of three violet spheres of light; the spheres appear faintly against a black background.

How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness by Darby English

Work by Black artists today is almost uniformly understood in terms of its “Blackness,” with audiences often expecting or requiring it to “represent” the race. In How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness, Darby English shows how severely such expectations limit the scope of our knowledge about this work and how different it looks when approached on its own terms. Refusing to grant racial Blackness primacy over his subjects’ other concerns and contexts, he brings to light problems and possibilities that arise when questions of artistic priority and freedom come into contact, or even conflict, with those of cultural obligation. English examines the integrative and interdisciplinary strategies of five contemporary artists—Kara Walker, Fred Wilson, Isaac Julien, Glenn Ligon, and William Pope.L—stressing the ways in which this work at once reflects and alters our view of its informing context: the advent of postmodernity in late twentieth-century American art and culture.

Cover of To Conserve a Legacy, featuring a painting of a young Black man holding a paint brush. The man looks toward the viewer with a slight scowl; he wears a black hat and green shirt. Behind him is an open window with a bucolic field and sky.

To Conserve A Legacy: American Art From Historically Black Colleges and Universities by Richard Powell and Jock Reynolds

Many of this nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have amassed significant collections of American art and founded galleries and museums on their campuses. These collections provide a rich resource for the study of African American art, yet many also possess a diverse array of nineteenth- and twentieth-century American art. Published in 1999, To Conserve a Legacy documents an outstanding sampling of paintings, prints, drawings, photographs, and sculptures owned by Clark Atlanta University, Fisk University, Hampton University, Howard University, North Carolina Central University, and Tuskegee University.

Learn more about the MIT Press Grant for Diverse Voices