Seek Inspiration: Honoring the Life and Work of Pioneering Black Artists

The influential artistic contributions of Black women are as old as time, but only in recent years have museums and institutions begun to combat the egregious underrepresentation that Black female artists have faced over the centuries. In honor of Black History Month, and inspired by exhibitions like BAMPFA’s current retrospective of Rosie Lee Tompkins, we’re highlighting the work of seven pioneering Black artists from the 20th and 21st centuries who are celebrated not only for their innovative work, but also for demanding that Black women be represented on the global art scene.


Alma Thomas (1891-1978)

Alma Thomas was born in 1891 and worked as a dedicated high school art teacher. During the 1960s she emerged as an exuberant colorist, abstracting shapes and patterns from the trees and flowers around her.  Her palette and technique – considerably lighter and looser than her earlier representational works and dark abstractions – reflect her long study of color theory and medium. She was a cornerstone for the Fine Arts at Howard University and took major strides during times of segregation as a female artist.  Thomas believed that creativity should be independent of gender or race, creating works with a focus on accidental beauty and the abstraction of color.

Learn more about Alma Thomas at The Smithsonian American Art Museum online.


Lois Mailou Jones (1905-1998)

Born in Boston to a working-class family in 1905, Lois Mailou Jones became an influential painter, designer, and educator whose most well known work integrates aspects of African masks, figures and textiles. Influenced by many international trips and the Harlem Renaissance movement, her paintings may have been some of the first more abstract works exhibited by an African American artist.  During her long and complex career, she taught generations of artists at Howard University, lived as an expatriate in Paris, and became a cultural ambassador for the US to Africa.

Learn more about Jones and her work at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.


Elizabeth Catlett (1915-2012)

Elizabeth Catlett was born on April 15, 1915 in Washington D.C. She was awarded a scholarship to attend the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh – only to have the offer rescinded on the basis of her race. She went to Howard University and later studied under Grant Wood at the University of Iowa. She became the first African American woman to graduate with an MFA from the school. In the 1940s, she traveled to Mexico on a fellowship and began to paint murals influenced by the work of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Their spirit of activism inspired Catlett to produce images of hardship by African American women in the South. She explored themes relating to race and feminism in her work that included sculpture, paintings, and prints. Catlett highlighted the struggle of the black people with her art. Responding to segregation and the fight for civil rights, her depiction of sharecroppers and activists showed the influence of Primitivism and Cubism.

 Learn more about Catlett’s life and career at


Rosie Lee Tompkins (1936-2006)

Rosie Lee Tompkins is the pseudonym of quilter Effie Mae Howardwas, as she was deeply private, especially after she became nationally known. Rosie Lee Tompkins was an outstanding textile artist, whose virtuosic quilts marry traditional technique with subversive innovation. She utilized an array of color, texture, and materials, including velvet, glittery novelty fabric, fake fur, and polyester. Tompkins was born in 1936 to a sharecropping family in southeastern Arkansas but spent the bulk of her life in Richmond, CA, working as a practical nurse. She rarely sold her quilts and was discovered by a collector who facilitated her work being exhibited.  Tompkins abstract compositions often held deep personal significance to her. She only sewed the quilt tops, believing in the spiritual and aesthetic of them, rather than their function.

BAMPFA is currently showing an incredible virtual retrospective of Tompkins’s work. Explore it here


Howardena Pindell (b. 1943)

Born in Philadelphia in 1943, Howardena Pindell studied painting at Boston University and Yale University. Pindell often employs lengthy, metaphorical processes of destruction/reconstruction.  She cuts canvases in strips and sews them back together, building up surfaces in elaborate stages.  More often than not her paintings are installed un-stretched. Much of her later work is more politically charged with thematic focuses in order to address issues of homelessness, AIDS, war, genocide, sexism, xenophobia, and apartheid.

Learn more by exploring Pindell’s website here and the MCA’s 2018 exhibition, Howardena Pindell: What Remains To Be Seen



Julie Mehretu (b. 1970)

Born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopa and now working in NYC and Berlin, Julie Mehretu has become well known for the monumental scale of her works. Alive and dynamic, her work incorporating painting, drawing, and printmaking often feature mystifying layered matrices of color that evoke “psycho-geographies” of time and space. Mehretu’s work is informed by a multitude of sources including politics, literature, and music, provoking thought and reflection of the individual and society.

Learn more about Julia Mehretu and explore her work online at MoMA here and Marian Goodman Gallery here



Mickalene Thomas (b. 1971)

Videography, photography, installation, and sculpture are some of the media through which Mickalene Thomas uses to examine a contemporary vision of female sexuality, beauty, and power. Thomas’s paintings are complex and incorporate acrylic, rhinestone, and enamel. Thomas constructs complex portraits, landscapes, and interiors to examine how identity, gender, and sense-of-self are informed by the ways women (and ‘feminine’ spaces) are represented in art history and popular culture.

We love how Thomas describes the ways in which her work explores self-knowing and individual expression:  “To see yourself and for others to see you is a form of validation…I’m interested in that very mysterious and mystical line that is how we relate to each other in the world.”

Learn more at Thomas’s website:


It is important to remember that amplifying Black history, Black culture, and Black voices should transcend beyond the month of February. We have always and will always continue to highlight the work and advocacy of Black creatives.

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