5 African American Artists in the Underground Art World
Fine Art and Real Estate Broker Anna D. Smith celebrates Black History Month by honoring African American artists working outside of the gatekeeping established art world. Here are five underground artists whose works are worth collecting.
There is no other human contemporary activity like visual art. As a commercial enterprise, it is unregulated and can be unscrupulously shady. In 2011, when newly hired Jeffrey Deitch as Director of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art held an exhibition of Street art, it led to his firing. “Deitch has drawn ire for favoring flashy, fashion-forward shows that draw more from pop culture than the academy,” reports The Atlantic in a 2012 article, “The Downfall of MOCA’s Jeffrey Deitch.”
Artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, and Banksy, all come from the Street art milieu. The UK’s Tate Museum defines Underground art as a subculture of art, like graffiti art or comic strip art, and it blames the Internet for allowing artists to communicate with a wide audience for free without the support of the Art establishment. See Pricing.
Defined this way, beloved Peanuts comic strip creator Charles Schultz would be an Underground artist, and his characters, like Charlie Brown, Lucy, Snoopy, and Lioness, would be Underground art. What about Stan Lee, creator of the Spider-Man comic strip series? Sadly, comic strips have long fit into the box of an Underground art form.
When it comes to Art sales, the Contemporary Art market is the place to own Art. Different art houses have different definitions of Contemporary art. Some include dead artists, others include only the living. To be safe, if the artist is living, their Works are Contemporary.
According to this Artprice infographic, the Contemporary Art price index soared to an all-time high at the beginning of the 2021 summer. The price increase for Contemporary Art is now around +400% since the early 2000s, making it the most dynamic and profitable segment of the Art Market. Its growth is clearly more impressive than that of the Post-War segment, whose price index rose less than half as much (+178%) over the same period.
Similarly, if you would have invested in the S&P 500 at the beginning of 2000 it has only increased 384%. From June of 2020 through June of 2021, the Contemporary Art Market had a record-breaking $2.7 billion in sales. Christie’s International sold $7.1 billion of art during 2021. This was a 54% increase from 2020 and up 22% from the 2019’s pre-COVID-19 era. Regarding Christie’s Contemporary Art sales, 8% were in NFTs.
According to Allan Schwartzman, with over 40-years as an art consultant, for some time now, African American art is the most sought-after Contemporary art. Artprice’s “The Contemporary Art Market report in 2021,” in its section THE “BLACK RENAISSANCE” IN FULL SWING, reports the following:
Faced with the reality of this under-representation, several American museums have revised their recruitment strategies to include black men and women on their boards of directors. And following the demonstrations linked to the All Black Lives Matter movement during the summer of 2020, the objective of diversification has become more pressing than ever. Having become an institutional priority, the recognition of black artists has triggered a strong increase in demand for their works, which is of course reflected in their prices.
The phenomenon took off in 2016 with the first 7-digit auction result for a work by African-American artist Kerry James Marshall – Plunge (1992) – which fetched $2.16 million, at Christie’s New York. Two years later, Marshall crossed the $20 million threshold with Past Times (1997) fetching $21.1 million at Sotheby’s New York.
In the first three quarters of 2021, African American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960 – 1988) sold over a $quarter-billion in art sales. Not only is Contemporary Art the hottest art in the art market, but it is the artists working in art spaces the establishment considers to be Underground that is receiving most of the coins.
African American Graffiti Artist
He is known as the “King of Graffiti,” for having spray painted over 5,000 subway trains in New York City. Steven Ogburn aka Blade was born in New York in 1957, and grew up in the Bronx. He lived and breathed the Graffiti movement at its inception in New York City.
Blade is credited for creating several Graffiti writing styles, such as overlapping 3D letters and Blockbuster Letters. From 1972 to 1984 Blade and his crew, TC5 (The Crazy 5) is best known for spray painting on metro lines 2 and 5. These lines passed through Manhattan, Central Park, Brooklyn, and the Bronx.
In 1981, Blade was an exhibitor at the group exhibition New York/New Wave, curated by Diego Cortez. The large rooms were full of people, the rush of visitors overwhelming, as people waited in line for two blocks to see Cortez’s portrait of the underground art and post-Punk scene of New York City. The exhibition drew more than 100 established and less established artists, musicians, writers and filmmakers from the No Wave scene. It included Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, Nan Goldin, Dondi, Seen, Lee Quinones, and a 20-year-old Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Blade is also featured in the 1984 book Subway Art. Subway Art is a photojournalistic work by Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant. It documents the early history of the New York City graffiti movement. Known as ‘the bible’ of graffiti, it became one of the UK’s most stolen books.
Since the late 90s, Blade has been internationally exhibited, like France, Holland, Australia, and Denmark. He also was a part of the infamous Art In The Streets, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in 2011. It’s infamous because it is widely speculated that the exhibition so inflamed the gatekeepers of the established art world that it caused newly hired Director of MOCA Los Angeles, Jeffrey Deitch to get fired. Regardless of the fact, the exhibition broke all attendance records for the museum.
African American Street Artist
Georgie “Sevin” Nakima also known as Garden of Journey [https://www.gardenofjourney.com/] hails from Charlotte, North Carolina. Garden of Journey holds a major in Biology, and a minor in Chemistry from Winston-Salem State University. Her work is a reliable voice in the Afrofuturism movement.
The image seen here is Salt Water; it is Garden of Journey’s largest mural to date. In downtown Providence, Rhode Island, Salt Water finds itself unique amongst the surrounding buildings.
In February of 2019, Charlotte, North Carolina was the host city for the NBA’s All Star game. The NBA and Xbox commissioned her for a mural on the basketball court of the McCrorey YMCA. Besides these examples, her works can be seen in Charlotte from Beatties Ford Road to NoDa. While Synergy is one of her works that reflects the history and future of Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
In the fall of 2019 she did a mural at Mechanics and Farmers Bank, Charlotte’s first minority-owned financial institution. This work and others, some completed some weren’t, we stopped as a result of Covid 19. The project, Kindred, is seen as being a vital project to Charlotte’s African American development corridor.
In June of 2020, Garden of Journey was featured in ELLE Magazine for her collaborative work on a Black Lives Matter mural. It was in response to the murder of George Floyd. The mural was a collaboration between the City of Charlotte, Charlotte is Creative, Brand The Moth, BLKMRKTCLT, and local artists. It took 72 hours to complete. Garden of Journey tells the magazine:
As a Black woman living in the South there are so many layers of my identity that pulled into my inspiration. I am disappointed at the policies that our council continues to hold, despite the fact that they fringe on our rights to protest and hold our judicial department accountable for police brutality. I am disappointed that it takes another unjust murder for the world to hear our generational pain and triumph. But I am moved at how quickly my city and my community of artists and organizers have gathered. Using art as a vehicle of protest is powerful.
Currently, she has a mural exhibition in Dallas, Texas, until March 31, 2022. The piece is called Georgie Nakima: To the Constellations of Ancestors in Our Bones, Thank You. It is a commissioned work of AT&T’s Black Future Makers initiative.
Black Future Makers, which launched in 2018, is a month-long program that showcases economic empowerment. The celebration includes recognition of forward-facing Black luminaries like John Legend and Kirk Franklin who shape culture and advocate for equity.
African American Prison Artist
During the Flood is a work by California prison artist Donald “C-Note” Hooker [https://www.c-note.org/]. The London Daily Post reports him as the world’s most prolific prisoner artist. During the Flood is a public service announcement created right after the 2017 Category 5 Hurricane Harvey.
During the Flood is one of C-Note’s most disseminated Works. Grassroots organizations and individuals have used During the Flood on social media and other formats for the evacuation of prisons in the path of Category 5 Hurricane Dorian in 2019, and Category 4 Hurricane Ida in 2021.
Prison art is the most censored of the Underground arts. These works are very inaccessible. What California prison officials did inadvertently by letting During the Flood get out into the public, no Gulf state prison official would have let this Work out of its prison.
C-Note is known as The King of Prison Hip Hop. Like early Hip Hop, artists were seen as journalists, through their words and in art. In 2016, he created several works regarding the 175-women who were serving sentences of Life Without the Possibility of Parole at the Central California Women’s Facility.
In 2017, Strange Fruit touched on the high suicide rate at the California Institution for Women. His 2018 work Today We Are Sisters raised awareness for reparations to the California women prisoners who had been forcibly sterilized. In 2021, this campaign brought $7 million in reparations, right after the release of the Free Virtual Art Exhibition (1-Artist; 1-Subject; 21-Works), which closed with Today We Are Sisters.
2020 Covid 19 health restrictions thwarted his works making history in the World of Fashion, as being the first time models would have walked the Runway in clothes designed with Prison art. From 2019 – 2020, C-Note worked with Fashion designer Makenzie Stiles for her fashion line Mercy.
The fall of 2021 saw the press headline, “Black Prisoner Invades Tech World.” It was in relation to the Billboard Art Exhibition of his 2017 work Incarceration Nation in the largest city in the Silicon Valley, San Jose, California. Silicon Valley is the Technology Capital of the world, and has the US greatest wealth gap. Incarceration Nation is a series of Billboard Art exhibitions called “Look Up!” Notable on the billboard is the text, “they call him the Billboard Banksy.” So named after the Graffiti artist and social artivist out of the UK.
The winter of 2021 saw C-Note’s second Billboard Art Exhibition. It too was in the Silicon Valley and featured his 2015 Andy Warhol inspired work, Colored Girl Warholed. This Billboard art exhibition has aerial drone footage.
Besides being an award-winning visual artist, C-Note is a poet, playwright, and Performing Artist. His Works have either been exhibited, recited, performed, or sold, from Alcatraz to Berlin.
African American Digital Artist
His Royal Airness is a work by Otha “Vakseen” Davis III [https://vakseenart.com/].
On March 12, 2021, he sold this work for 8 Ethereum crypto dollars ($16,000), as a minted NFT. NFT (Non-fungible Token), are crypto transactions on a blockchain.
Vakseen, like other great Underground artists, is multidisciplinary in his artistic approach. He is a multi-platinum music executive, producer, and songwriter. His moniker (Vakseen), means being the cure in life. He believes a person can either complain about life, or be the cure by making change. For Vakseen, art serves this purpose.
Vakseen moved to Los Angeles, California, in 2011, where he self-taught himself to become a realism artist. He is best known for his series, Vanity Pop and Pop Pop Icons.
Vanity Pop is a collage-influence painting technique that celebrates women, beauty, fashion, personal identity, luxury, excess, insecurities, and vulnerability. His abstract portraits fuse elements of cubism, photorealism, fashion design and pop surrealism, resulting in a visual dialogue about the male gaze, its impact on pop culture and consumerism, and how they impact beauty standards, as well as people.
Pop Pop Icons is a series that celebrates his favorite pop icons and cultural legends. These vibrant portraits are created to celebrate his love for pop culture and to keep their legacies alive, while connecting people worldwide through shared admiration.
Everything about our culture is preserved through art and youth, so I just wanted to create something that could be shared with my son or my grandmother and still have the same impact.
His Works have been featured by major brands like Nike, Adidas, Vans, Bombay Sapphire Gin and even Tupac Shakur’s estate. In addition to being sold to collectors and art enthusiasts, his work has been shown in countless gallery exhibitions, such as WMOCA, Soho House London, Spectrum Miami/Art Basel, Ontario Museum of History & Art and Brownsville Museum of Fine Art. He’s also been featured in over 100 print and online magazines worldwide, from American Art Collector, Hi-Fructose, Complex Magazine, Vibe, Buzzfeed, to LA Weekly, Fine Art Connoisseur, and Juxtapoz Magazine, just to name a few.
African American Illustrator
Vashti Harrison [https://www.vashtiharrison.com/] is an interdisciplinary artist in Illustration, writing, and filmmaking. Although born in the State of Virginia, her works go on to reflect her Caribbean heritage
In 2010, she earned a BA from the University of Virginia as a double major in Media Studies and Studio Art with concentrations in Film and Cinematography. In 2014, she received an MFA in Film and Video from California Institute of Arts, where she attended Disney and DreamWorks Animation classes. She held the Aunspaugh 5th Year Fellowship in the McIntire Department of Art in 2010.
Her Instagram posts led to a commission from Apple. This was her first commission and led to live drawings on iPads in New York. Her move to Trinidad and Tobago inspired her to create children’s picture books. In 2016 she won the “Drawing This!” contest at the Mid-Atlantic Conference for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. It led to some serious notice by the children publishing industry.
Two months later, Simon & Schuster became her agent. She illustrated the 2018 Festival of Colors by Surishtha and Kabir Sehgal. Also in that year, she illustrated Kimberly Derting and Shelli R Johannes book Cece Loves Science.
In 2020, Harrison received a NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work – Children category, for her illustrative work in Sulwe by Lupita Nyong.
In 2017, Harrison published her own illustration book, Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History. It is now a New York Times bestseller, and led to a series of works by Harrison called the “Little Leaders.”
Since the dawn of Humankind, archeological records are clear, humans are obsessed with recording the world around them on two dimensional platforms. Whether that platform be a 27,000-year-old cave painting outline of a human hand near Marseilles, France; the craftsmanship of relief drawings in Thebes, Egypt, inside the tomb of Mentuhotep II (2008 – 1957 BC); the indestructible frescoes at the doomed homes of Pompeians from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD; or a computer.
Besides the need to tell our stories by visual art, our insatiable need for Art in our indoor spaces is undeniable. Our homes are not a home without a framed picture, nor are our workplace office spaces. Let’s not forget the decorative art even in the bathrooms of our homes.
But living with art is not its only utility. It has been classified for a very long time as residing in those areas in the world of finance as an asset. Art is as recognizable as being a part of the asset class as real estate, and stocks or bonds.
Its rate of return on investment can compete with the best of them, and unlike other purchases, does not decrease in value once it leaves the store or is driven off the showroom floor. Other factors of depreciation that Art is immune from, are age and use.
No matter what the reason, here are five African American artists you should better familiarize yourself with. Either in living with their extraordinary Works in your home and office, or as an investment.
Contemporary art is where it’s at, and Underground Contemporary Art is leading the Art Market. If you are new to the business of art, African American Contemporary art has the highest demand both institutionally and privately. It is also the hardest art for these private and institutional interests to find.
In the case of American Prison art, which gave birth to the American Graffiti movement, who in turn gave birth to the American Street art movement, Graffiti’s legalized form, Prison art is the most inaccessible.
Be sure to click over to the Home Page to check out the over 200 Art Museum Quality prints for sale by C-Note.
I am a Fine Art and Real Estate Broker with 40 years of experience in all aspects of the Real Estate Industry. A member of the National Association of REALTORS®. I advocate for Prison Artist C-Note. With the right wall art, your room will go from functional to functionally enchanting. Contact me for your Fine Art & Real Estate problems.
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