Thelonious Stokes USA, b. 1996


Thelonious Stokes is a figurative oil painter, performer, songwriter and filmmaker whose work examines Black identity and representation through various personal, social, and historical lenses.

In an early series of works titled Caged Black Paintings, Stokes painted a series of chiaroscuro-style portraits of Black people. The paintings were then housed within hand-welded, black metal cages. The series literally positioned Black faces behind bars, exposing them to an outward gaze as if on display in a prison or a zoo. This gesture not only questioned the essential notion of what it means to “frame” an artwork, it critiqued the notion of how Western art history perceives Black people both when they are the subject of paintings, and when they are the artists.

In 2018, Stokes relocated from his home city of Chicago to Florence, Italy, to attend classes at the Florence Academy of Art. The Academy specializes in classical training in Western European oil painting. Stokes was the first African American artist to attend the program.

About his acceptance to the prestigious Florence Academy of Art, Stokes said, “Being the first African American to attend the school makes me feel grateful. Grateful yet aware of the relevance of institutional racism. By being exposed to the beauty of oil painting, I am now able to break the barriers of being defined as Black in America.”

In his recent exhibition, Thelonious Stokes – Models, Stokes brought together a series of his academic works, juxtaposing them with performances intended to analyze the limits of an academic arts education, especially in context of the colonial, mostly White structures and concepts that have traditionally defined what we are calling the “Western art historical canon.”

Throughout his practice, Stokes has sought ways to reconceptualize the Black experience. Whether through his paintings, his performances, his videos, or his songwriting, he challenges the inconsistencies and myopic representations of Black identity offered by institutional systems of belief such as art history.

Stokes currently lives, paints, and teaches in Florence, Italy.