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African-American and African Diaspora Art  
page: 1  2  3  

Still other artists have reclaimed their own family images and histories in the quest for identity. Darrel Ellis (1958-1992), a New York-based mixed media artist, started out making self-portraits until he discovered a cache of photographs his father, Thomas Ellis, had made in the 1950s. Ellis reworked them, using painting and drawing to explore identity within the family dynamic and to rewrite the familial narrative as a kind of self-therapy.

Relatedly, multimedia artist Glenn Ligon (b. 1960) also uses the family album format. In one series, he juxtaposes his own family photographs with amateur gay male pornographic images. He intersperses these disparate images literally to insert the body of the gay male into family history.

For the 1993 Whitney Museum Biennial exhibition, Ligon created "Notes on the Margin of the 'Black Book'" (1991-1993) in direct response to Robert Mapplethorpe's celebrated yet controversial photographs of the black male body.

Like Ellis, photographer Christian Walker (b. 1954), originally from Atlanta, also alters the surface of his photographic prints, made from old family images, using oil, charcoal, and pigments. Walker's work deals with miscegenation, race relations, and the family dynamic rather than his own sexuality.

African-American Lesbian Artists

Although black lesbian visual artists are a diverse group, it nevertheless remains difficult to find women artists who identify as both lesbian or bisexual and of African descent. Still, a number of African-American lesbian photographers and filmmakers have emerged in the last twenty years. While their work is less well known and well documented than that of their male counterparts, they also explore themes of community, family, and sexuality, often through representations of the self.

Like their male counterparts, lesbian artists have also had articulate writers and critics to advance the discussion surrounding their images. While black lesbian novelist and poet Jewelle Gomez wrote about images of her family and of black women in 1987 without addressing lesbian identity, in 1995 critic Jackie Goldsby located black lesbian desire in Vanessa Williams' Penthouse magazine pictorial, which featured her engaging in simulated sex with another woman. Goldsby's essay points out the persistent invisibility of the black lesbian body as virtually none of the sensationalistic press accounts of the publication of the images actually addressed the lesbian content of the photographs.

Using the documentary approach to break down that invisibility, San Franciscan Jean Weisinger (b. 1954) makes self-portraits as well as portraits of women and the lesbian community. In 1996 Aunt Lute Press published a calendar of her portraits of women authors, many of them women of color and/or lesbians.

The varied photojournalistic work of photographer and curator Valeria "Mikki" Ferrill (b. 1937) has focused on everything from black cowboys to "Dykes on Bikes" at the Gay Pride parade in San Francisco, giving faces to both racial and sexual communities that are little known in mainstream society.

Using representational imagery but in a much more interpretive vein is H. Lynn Keller (b. 1951), a San Francisco-based photographer and filmmaker whose work addresses identity, politics, and spirituality.

Likewise, Carla Williams (b. 1965), a Santa Fe-based artist, uses self-portraits to investigate representations of the black female body throughout photographic history. She positions herself as both photographer and subject to break down the separation between the object and the viewer's gaze. In addition, Williams' website,, functions as a source of information about black artists (especially women artists) and gay and lesbian artists to help facilitate access to resource materials.

Working in the tradition of British photographer Jo Spence who, along with lesbian photographer Rosy Martin, pioneered the practice of phototherapy, African/Caribbean/Canadian artist Karen Augustine (b. 19??) deals explicitly with sexual abuse and black women's mental health in her photo/text mixed media works. "Drawing from my own experience, I noticed various dynamics within the abuser/abused relationship," Augustine writes in a self-interview. "I couldn't deny the role my sexuality, class, gender and race played in this straight, white man's need to express his power over me." Augustine also writes about black women's sexuality and art.

African-American lesbian filmmakers Jocelyn Taylor (b. 19??), Yvonne Welbon (b. 1962), and Cheryl Dunye (b. 1966) have also garnered much attention in recent years for their work regarding black lesbian identity. Dunye's Watermelon Woman (1996), in which a black lesbian is determined to restore not only a name but a lesbian history to a forgotten film actress once billed only as "Watermelon Woman," mirrors the filmmaker's own attempt to give an eloquent cinematic voice to black lesbian lives.


The gay, lesbian, and bisexual artists of the African Diaspora largely work in representational media. Their work explores race and sexuality, although it is by no means limited to such subjects. Indeed, their increased visibility--their openness as gay or lesbian and of African descent--gives them freedom to explore every aspect of their complex lives and worlds.

Carla Williams

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arts >> Overview:  American Art: Gay Male, 1900-1969

Prior to Stonewall, most gay artists were closeted, but they were inventive in creating codes for those in the know; after 1945 some adventurous artists developed independent networks for the distribution of works of gay art.

arts >> Overview:  American Art: Gay Male, Post-Stonewall

After Stonewall, American gay male art underwent a radical transformation as artists came out and began to treat gay themes openly and directly.

arts >> Overview:  American Art: Lesbian, 1900-1969

American lesbian art in the earlier twentieth century was indelibly shaped by the expatriate experience and by the emergence of a more democratic art form, photography, as well as by the intense pressure following World War II to retreat into the closet.

arts >> Overview:  American Art: Lesbian, Post-Stonewall

Since Stonewall, lesbian artists in America, from installation artists to filmmakers and photographers to performance artists and painters, have become increasingly diverse and visible.

literature >> Overview:  The Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance, an African-American literary movement of the 1920s and 1930s, included several important gay and lesbian writers.

arts >> Overview:  Photography: Lesbian, Post-Stonewall

Since Stonewall lesbian photographers have created an enduring archive that documents lesbian lives, searches for a lesbian sensibility, and explores various issues of particular import to the lesbian community.

arts >> Barthé, James Richmond

A popular African-American sculptor associated with the Harlem Renaissance, James Richmond Barthé used his art as a means of working out internal conflicts related to race and sexuality.

arts >> Blake, Nayland

Versatile African-American artist Nayland Blake creates--in a variety of media--work that reflects his preoccupation with his racial and sexual identities.

arts >> Delaney, Beauford

The pressures of being black and gay in a racist and homophobic society may have ultimately robbed renowned American painter Beauford Delaney of his sanity.

arts >> Fani-Kayode, Rotimi

One of the most important black photographers of the late twentieth century, Rotimi Fani-Kayode explores important themes of racial and sexual identity.

literature >> Gomez, Jewelle

In her poetry, fiction, and essays, Jewelle Gomez seeks to merge her black, feminist, and lesbian identities into an indivisible whole.

arts >> Julien, Isaac

Filmmaker, artist, and cultural critic Isaac Julien is the most prominent member of a new wave of black artists and filmmakers involved in examining black and gay representation.

arts >> Lewis, Mary Edmonia

American sculptor Mary Edmonia Lewis lived most of her life in Rome, where she was a member of a lesbian circle of American expatriates and artists.

arts >> Ligon, Glenn

The work of African-American mixed-media artist Glenn Ligon often conflates issues of race and gender and their frequently parallel histories and struggles.

arts >> Mapplethorpe, Robert

American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe's controversial images typically combine rigorously formal composition and design with extreme subject matter.

arts >> Riggs, Marlon

African-American filmmaker Marlon Riggs celebrated black culture and gay male sexuality, while exposing homophobia and racism.


Autograph, the Association of Black British Photographers.

Bailey, David A., Stuart Hall, et al, eds. Ten.8: Critical Decade 2.3 (Spring 1992).

Bailey, David A., ed. "Black Experiences," Ten.8 no. 22 (1986).

Blake, Nayland, Lawrence Rinder, and Amy Scholder, eds. In a Different Light: Visual Culture, Sexual Identity, Queer Practice. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1995.

"Bodies of Excess." Ten.8 2.1 (Spring 1991).

Boffin, Tessa and Jean Fraser, eds. Stolen Glances: Lesbians Take Photographs. London: Pandora Press, 1991.

Bright, Deborah, ed. The Passionate Camera: Photography and Bodies of Desire. London: Routledge, 1998.

Corinne, Tee A. "Lesbian Photography on the U.S. West Coast: 1972-1997."

Dent, Gina, ed. Black Popular Culture: A Project by Michele Wallace. Seattle: Bay Press, 1992.

Harris, Thomas Allen. Home Page.

Kelley, Caffyn, ed. Forbidden Subjects: Self-Portraits by Lesbian Artists. North Vancouver, B.C.: Gallerie Publications, 1992.

Mercer, Kobena. Welcome to the Jungle: New Positions in Black Cultural Studies. New York: Routledge, 1994.

McBreen, Ellen. "Biblical Gender Bending in Harlem: The Queer Performance of Nugent's 'Salome.'" Art Journal 57.3 (Fall 1998): 22-27.

Read, Alan, ed. The Fact of Blackness: Frantz Fanon and Visual Representation. Seattle: Bay Press, 1996.

Weisinger, Jean. Imagery: Women Writers, Portraits by Jean Weisinger. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1996.

Williams, Carla. Home Page.

Willis, Deborah. Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers, 1840 to the Present. New York: Norton, 2000.

_____, et al. Darrel Ellis. New York: Art in General, 1996.

Wilmer, Val, ed. "Evidence: New Light on Afro American Images." Ten.8 no. 24 (1987).


    Citation Information
    Author: Williams, Carla  
    Entry Title: African-American and African Diaspora Art  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated March 16, 2006  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2002, glbtq, Inc.  


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