Culture Type: The Year in Black Art 2018 — Victoria L. Valentine

Culture Type, 01.18.2019

EXHIBITION | Feb. 15: “Figuring History: Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas” opens at the Seattle Art Museum. Spanning three generations, Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, and Mickalene Thomas are recognized for their singular and assertive representations of black figures.


In many ways, 2018 was a watershed year for black artists. Overdue recognition of art by African American artists and black artists from throughout the world, continued to grow among collectors, curators, critics, scholars, and gallery owners. There were many indicators of the ever-expanding institutional and market interest.

European attention on African American artists rose. In the United States, major museums dedicated prime gallery space to huge exhibitions. Retrospectives of Charles White (1918-1979), Adrian Piper, and Howardena Pindell traveled the country in 2018. Presenting stunning self portraits by South African photographer Zanele Muholi, “Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness” made its U.S. debut at the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, where an earlier exhibition, “Deborah Roberts: The Evolution of Mimi,” raised the profile of Roberts, whose figurative collages explore race, beauty, girlhood, vulnerability and power.

Mid-career, Roberts came into her own in 2018. As did Simone Leigh. Known for her ceramic works, Leigh won the Guggenheim’s $100,000 Hugo Boss Prize. She was the first black artist to do so. Hamilton, Canada-born Kapwani Kiwanga was also the first black artist to win the National Gallery of Canada’s Sobey Art Award, which includes 100,000 Canadian dollars. Then, Titus Kaphar is named a MacArthur “genius” fellow, an honor that includes a $625,000 grant.

Several artists joined the rosters of so-called mega galleries in 2018, including Amy Sherald and Charles Gaines at Hauser & Wirth, Njideka Akunyili Crosby and the estate of Roy DeCarava at David Zwirner, and Theaster Gates at Gagosian.

Meanwhile, amid the escalating demand, more and more works by black artists showed up at the top auction houses. While the works continue to be undervalued, prices are rising. In 2018, two lots reached the eight-figure mark—a historic first for a living black artist. Mark Bradford’s “Helter Skelter II” (2007) sold for nearly $12 million (including fees) in March, and then “Past Times” by Kerry James Marshall rocketed up to $21.1 million in May. (Neither artist benefitted directly from the record sales.)

On a variety of fronts, Marshall was the artist who dominated 2018. The following review presents key highlights of the year in black art.

MICKALENE THOMAS | Sept. 14: “Mickalene Thomas: I Can’t See You Without Me” opens at the Wexner Center for the Arts at The Ohio State University in Columbus. Featuring Mickalene Thomas’s celebrated rhinestoned embellished paintings, as well as collages, sculptures, and immersive installations, the exhibition “explores her vibrant and resonant dialogue with authorship, identity, desire, and the historically charged relationship between artist and muse.” Earlier in the year, her work is presented in “Figuring History: Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas” and “Muse: Mickalene Thomas Photographs and tête-à-tête.” Later in 2018, “Mickalene Thomas: Femmes Noires,” her first large-scale solo exhibition in Canada, opens at Art Gallery Ontario in Toronto. On the photography front, Thomas is honored by the International Center of Photography, and she photographs Cardi B for W magazine, film director Berry Jenkins for the New York Times, and fellow artist Carrie Mae Weems for “T,” the Times style magazine. | Image: Mickalene Thomas, “Raquel Reclining Wearing Purple Jumpsuit,” 2016 (rhinestones, glitter, flock, acrylic and oil on wood panel, 96 x 144 inches). Rachel and Jean-Pierre Lehmann Collection. © Mickalene Thomas, Artist Rights Society (ARS) New York