Visual Culture

The Year in Visual Culture

Artsy Editors
Dec 22, 2017 11:30PM

What, exactly, is visual culture? In a world where we communicate increasingly with images, it’s an ever-expanding field, comprising not just art, photography, and design, but also memes, advertising, histories of representation, and the very technologies through which all this flows. In 2017, visual culture spanned from Arthur Jafa’s efforts to create an archive of the black aesthetic to Jenny Holzer’s “Truisms” becoming a calling card for the #metoo movement. It meant collector Yusaku Maezawa crowning Basquiat as America’s most expensive artist and Agnes Gund using art to help spark prison reform. But it also meant the pussyhat, the ubiquity of the Memphis Group, and incredible technical advances like augmented reality’s newest release, Magic Leap One. Here, Artsy’s editors select the 25 individuals who had the biggest impact in changing the visual landscape this year.

Arthur Jafa

Powerfully addressed race relations in the United States and continued his effort to create a visual archive of black American life


Very rarely does an artwork come around that has the effect of a literal punch to the gut. Jafa’s Love is the Message, the Message is Death is one such artwork. The seven-and-a-half-minute video, set to Kanye West’s gospel-infused “Ultralight Beam,” cycles rapidly through found video footage and home movies: a police officer shooting an unarmed black man in the back; teens dancing the dougie; President Obama singing “Amazing Grace” at a memorial service for Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney and eight parishioners killed by a white supremacist at Charleston’s Emanuel A.M.E. Church; clips of James Brown, Beyoncé, Martin Luther King Jr., Bayard Rustin, and the Notorious B.I.G.; helicopter footage of the L.A. Riots; and fans swag surfin’ at a basketball game. It is tragic to an extent that brings tears to your eyes even upon recollection. But it is also exultant and proud.

The 57-year-old Jafa has existed on the perimeter of the movie industry and art world since his breakout work as a cinematographer on Julie Dash’s 1991 film Daughters of the Dust. (Further credits include Spike Lee’s Crooklyn, 1994, and Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, 1999.) More recently, he gained popular acclaim for inspiring Beyoncé’s 2016 visual album Lemonade and working on music videos for Solange and Jay-Z, including an eight-minute film (directed with collaborators Elissa Blount-Moorhead and Malik Sayeed) for “4:44,” which recalls the aesthetic of Love is the Message, the Message is Death.

The clips Jafa sources for his films are part of his ongoing effort to create a visual archive of black American life, an archive that largely has yet to exist due to legacies of slavery and ongoing structural racism (the Hammer Museum showed nearly 200 of the binders that make up this archive as part of “Made in L.A. 2016”). His interest in helping qualify a black aesthetic, “to make black cinema with the power, beauty, and alienation of black music,” as he has said numerous times, led to APEX (2013), which was shown this summer at Art Basel in Basel.

But it was Love is the Message, the Message is Death that finally made the art world embrace Jafa and Jafa embrace it back. Following the film’s debut at Gavin Brown’s Harlem space in November 2016, it went on to show at MOCA Los Angeles, the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., the Vinyl Factory and the Serpentine Galleries and Store Studios in London, and New York’s Met Breuer, which then purchased the work. It is institutional recognition of his larger project, one that has the potential to permanently shift American culture—recognition that is long overdue.

Yusaku Maezawa

Made Jean-Michel Basquiat America’s most expensive artist and expanded the global audience for art

On May 18th at Sotheby’s, Maezawa spent $110.5 million on an untitled 1982 Jean-Michel Basquiat painting, unseating Andy Warhol as America’s most expensive artist, beckoning a spate of Basquiat paintings back into the market, and prompting a new appreciation for the artist himself. It’s not surprising that Maezawa, still in his early forties, related to the young Haitian-Puerto Rican artist who died at 27, and whose work was emblematic of New York City’s late 1970s and ’80s street culture. Maezawa’s own unorthodox fortune was born of his ability to bridge youth cultures of the U.S. and Japan: After playing drums in a rock band, he started a mail-order music business, selling CDs and records he’d bought in the U.S. He went on to found an e-commerce platform, Zozotown, in 2004, and a hugely popular street-style app, Wear, that launched in the U.S. in 2016.

But it’s not just Maezawa’s ability to drop eye-popping sums that makes him such a significant figure, although the figures do spur headlines. Rather, it’s his uniquely public engagement with art that leaves a lasting impact: Maezawa brings a refreshing mix of transparency, generosity, and sheer joy to the art market. Many collectors hide their purchases behind convoluted networks of shell companies, and sequester their trophies in climate-controlled freeports. Not Maezawa. Moments after the hammer came down on the Basquiat, he posted a photo of himself with the painting on Instagram and a statement that read, “I am happy to announce that I just won this masterpiece. When I first encountered this painting, I was struck with so much excitement and gratitude for my love of art. I want to share that experience with as many people as possible.”  

His existing philanthropic venture, the Contemporary Art Foundation, puts on one to two shows a year in Tokyo, and he has plans to build a museum in the Tokyo suburb of Chiba, his hometown. Although construction has not yet begun, he continues to build his collection with an aim of bringing the most interesting and inspiring work to Japan, to spark greater public appreciation of contemporary art, especially among young people. In the meantime, he has publicly committed to lending his art widely to museums around the world, in particular his pricey Basquiat, which he noted has been unseen for the past 30 years. His goal is very simple: “Basically, I want more people to like art—and I want more people to make art.”

Krista Suh and Jayna Zweiman

Designed the pussyhat, which spurred a sea of pink resistance beginning with the Women’s March on Washington


It’s a strange day when women have to reclaim their own private parts, but such is the state of Donald Trump’s America. After the then-candidate was shown on tape describing how he “grab[s] [women] by the pussy,” Suh and Zweiman partnered with Kat Coyle, the owner of a Los Angeles yarn shop, and Pasadena-based artist Aurora Lady to create the “pussyhat.” The pink cat-eared knit cap rapidly took on a life of its own. The Pussyhat Project inspired volunteer knitters to make and donate hats en masse, creating a bright pink resistance movement when thousands wore them to the Women’s March on Washington on January 21st, the day after Trump’s inauguration. The resulting “sea of pink hats” on the National Mall, and their subsequent proliferation across the country as more women downloaded the pattern, reportedly caused a shortage of pink yarn, and landed the pussyhat on the covers of Time and the New Yorker (worn on a modern-day Rosie the Riveter).

The creators said they’d wanted to make something that “celebrated femininity.” The hot pink they chose was an angrier, more potent color than the cool, muted, “Millennial pink” that characterizes women-centric environments such as New York City’s women-only workspace and networking venue the Wing. “My belief is that pink is considered a little bit frivolous, girly, weak, soft, effeminate, and honestly…I think it’s a code for women,” Suh said earlier this year. Wearing it proudly, she said, sends a potent visual message: “We don’t care what you think.”

The cap, with its simple shape and unmissable color, arguably set the visual tone for the rest of the year, in which women’s voices, activism, political ambitions, and stories have caused a cultural reckoning even as decisions made in Washington, D.C., threaten their livelihoods and well-being. Women are starting to be heard; their pink pussyhats ensure they will be seen.

Jenny Holzer

Her truisms became a calling card for the #metoo movement

As the Weinstein Effect reached the art world this fall, Holzer’s work was taken up as a calling card for the widespread reckoning over sexual misconduct. Various photographs and text works by the artist inscribed with the phrase “Abuse of power comes as no surprise” became the visual identity and a rallying cry for the #notsurprised petition. The initiative, begun by a group of over 100 artists and arts professionals, gathered more than 5,000 signatures to attest to the systemic sexual harassment of the art world.

The “Truisms” that Holzer has forged since 1977 had already begun to ring truer than ever earlier this year, with the inauguration of President Donald Trump in January 2017. On Instagram, her photographs of theater marquees began to surface, bearing phrases like “Slipping into madness is good for the sake of comparison,” and “Raise boys and girls the same way”; meanwhile, at major international art fairs this year, her stone benches made regular appearances, bearing messages like “Savor kindness because cruelty is always possible later.”

Whereas many artists gained momentum this year by producing fresh work to align with anti-Trump and anti-fascist movements, Holzer was able to do so without reinventing herself. The artist’s proclivity for earnest wisdom that questions the powers that be—in bold, capital letters—gave her legendary work renewed relevance.

That’s not to say that Holzer didn’t actively push her practice forward this year—something made explicitly clear through her major fall exhibition at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, England. The historic 18th-century country house, which was the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill, inspired Holzer to further her investigations into conflict, with works that disseminated real accounts of wartime from civilians and soldiers. The artist debuted technology-driven work, including light projections, LED installations, and a virtual reality app that share testimonies culled by Human Rights Watch and Save the Children from victims of the Syrian civil war.

Solange Knowles

A pioneer who continues to merge art and popular culture, she brought forth an affirming image of black pride and femininity

In 2017, Solange transformed from successful singer-songwriter into a creative icon, on stages across the world, in groundbreaking music videos, on Instagram, in the Guggenheim rotunda, and at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas. She came to us dressed as part Afrofuturist goddess, part 1970s disco queen, part ethereal nymph—the embodiment of her gorgeous, nuanced album, A Seat at the Table, whose influence has been felt as much across visual culture as it has in our sonic landscape.

With the late 2016 release of that album, which both unflinchingly admonishes race relations in America and communicates all the tenderness and joy of the artist’s voice, Solange revealed a visual and performance aesthetic that represents a powerful new image of black pride. It’s one that invokes a pan-African ancestral past, combined with images of female strength and solidarity and infused with a dreamlike futurism. In her videos, Solange appears wrapped in giant palm fronds, standing atop Robert Bruno’s steel spaceship-like house in Ransom Canyon, Texas, or bound to her female performers in sheaths of fabric amid the open expanses of the New Mexico desert.

Through her collaborations with visual artists (including Arthur Jafa, Shani Crowe, Mickalene Thomas, and Rashaad Newsome); her engagement with the work of other talents like Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, who inspired the aesthetics of A Seat at the Table; and her push into some of the art world’s most revered spaces (her digital artwork, Seventy States, was shown at the Tate Modern in response to its “Soul of a Nation” exhibition this year), Solange has emerged as a cross-disciplinary artist who is committed to pushing her practice into exhilarating new realms and breaking down the barrier between art and popular culture.

Rony Abovitz and Craig Federighi

Using cutting-edge augmented reality to change the way we experience the world

Virtual reality may still be the art world’s favored technology-driven medium. But, thanks in no small part to the work of Magic Leap founder Abovitz and and the software teams that Federighi leads at Apple, its cousin, augmented reality (AR), stands poised to fundamentally reshape visual culture—and, ultimately, our lives—by replacing screens and physical interfaces with digital elements layered directly over the world around us.

Abovitz has yet to actually ship a product (his first, a “creator edition” of the Magic Leap One AR headset will be available at some point in 2018, and promises creatives the ability to “change how we experience the world”). But a host of giants in tech, ecommerce, and media—like Google, Alibaba, and Warner Bros.—have placed big bets on his company winning in the AR space via some $1.9 billion in venture capital, $502 million of which Magic Leap raised in a Series D this October. These investors are among the very few who have had the chance to demo a version of the company’s technology, which projects 3D images directly onto a user’s retinas, allowing for seamless integration between the real, physical world and this new digital layer (Abovitz himself described the experience as feeling “like living, reactive art”).

Transformative technologies at the scale of what many say Magic Leap represents often elicit backlash from all but the earliest adopters. But the world also took an important step in 2017 to normalize the use of AR in everyday life thanks to ARKit, a cornerstone feature of Apple’s iOS 11 that lets developers build AR apps within the App Store ecosystem. Leveraging a platform as ubiquitous as the iPhone to get your average smartphone user accustomed to the idea of virtual elements being placed into the visual landscape of their everyday lives, or scoping out prospective Amazon purchases in situ before clicking buy, is an essential step for the very near future in which physical and digital worlds will merge.

Ettore Sottsass

Founded the Memphis Group, whose design aesthetic exploded across popular culture this year

Nearly four decades since Sottsass’s heyday in 1980s Milan, the influential architect and designer’s aesthetics have become ubiquitous in the visual landscape. His proclivity for candy colors, squiggly patterns, shiny plastic, and buoyant shapes have penetrated various cultural spheres from fashion to design to marketing, becoming a sort of stand-in for millennial cool.

Despite a successful solo career before the Memphis Group’s formulation and after its demise, Sottsass has become synonymous with the collective of like-minded peers that he assembled in December 1980 in his Milan apartment. Together with designers including Andrea Branzi, Michele de Lucchi, and Nathalie du Pasquier, he helped forge a style that rejected the utilitarian, decoration-free Rationalist traditions they’d been taught in school, in favor of vibrant hues, bold geometric forms, and affordable materials, drawing influence from Art Deco and Pop Art.

The Memphis Group grew to include some 20 artists and designers, hailing from across the world, including Los Angeles-based Peter Shire and Shiro Kuramata of Tokyo. And, while Sottsass left Memphis in 1985 and the group disbanded in 1987, their style remained present in visual culture through the ’90s, making memorable appearances, for example, on American television, punching up commercial breaks on MTV and the opening credits and set design of Saved by the Bell.

Recently, Memphis has seen a revival, feted this summer with a major retrospective at the Met Breuer of Sottsass’s work and that of his peers. An its wild and playful spirit has inspired a new generation of creatives, including Brooklyn designer Misha Kahn, the Italian duo behind Amsterdam-based Studio Formafantasma, American painter Hernan Bas, and pattern-loving makers of coveted clothing Dusen Dusen.

Agnes Gund

Sold a $165 million painting by Roy Lichtenstein to help tackle criminal justice reform

Multi-million-dollar art sales often make headlines, but rarely do they make a tangible impact on the world. But this year, philanthropist, patron, and art collector Gund demonstrated that the elite art market can be a force for social good, setting an example for other well-heeled collectors who are also well-intentioned. In January, Gund sold a cherished work from her jaw-dropping collection—Roy Lichtenstein’s Masterpiece (1962)—for $165 million (with fees). The hefty sum was among the most ever paid for an artwork, but what really stood out was how Gund spent the money. She used $100 million from the sale to jumpstart the Art for Justice Fund, an ambitious new foundation aimed at tackling criminal justice reform and reducing the prison population by 20 percent over the next five years.

Gund, who is chairwoman of MoMA PS1 and president emerita of MoMA’s board, has long combined her passion for art with philanthropy. She said Art for Justice was inspired by books and documentaries  (Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow and Ava Duvernay’s documentary 13th were particularly impactful), and personal experience (six of her 12 grandchildren are African-American). The first round of Art for Justice grants, announced on November 15th, saw $22 million going to 30 criminal justice and arts organizations, including groups promoting bail reform and those empowering prisoners to tell their own stories though personal writing. But even beyond that, the creation of Art for Justice has expanded the horizon of what art sales can do—and, one hopes, might spark a trend among similarly influential collectors to leverage their art to do good.

Anne Imhof

Reflected society’s deep sense of unease onto art’s biggest stage

Imhof’s Faust, which won the Venice Biennale’s Golden Lion this year, was, appropriately given its nod to Wagner, the embodiment of a Gesamtkunstwerk. Imhof not only staged a five-hour-long performance that evolved over the course of seven months in the German Pavilion, but also completely transformed the building, which otherwise had been largely unchanged since a renovation by the Nazis in 1938. She added glass fences around its exterior (as well as caged Dobermans) and raised glassed flooring on the inside, beneath and on top of which a band of disaffected youth head-banged, screamed, and sauntered about. Imhof communicated real-time changes in the piece’s choreography to her performers—mostly friends, including her fiancée and frequent collaborator Eliza Douglas—via text message, resulting in a tangle of phone chargers sticking out from the pavilion’s wall outlets.

Imhof wields influence for her ability to reflect back into (and even shock) the rather insular and insulated confines of the art world, the level of precarity and the anxiety present among youth out in the real world. In contrast to a Venice Biennale that celebrated the power of artists with a name (“Viva Arte Viva!”) that recalled a Coldplay album title more so than a critique of society at large, Imhof’s performers variously looked like victims of the opioid crisis or members of an Antifa cell. But rather than taking on any single issue or regional manifestation of societal upheaval (the rise of Germany’s AfD or the alt-right in the United States being prime symptoms), Imhof bottled this deep sense of unease to maximum pressure inside Faust’s glass fences.

Tali Gumbiner and Lizzie Wilson

Created the “Fearless Girl” statue, which became a symbol of female empowerment

On the morning of March 8th, also known as International Women’s Day, the sun rose over Wall Street to reveal a small bronze statue of a young girl, defiantly staring down Wall Street’s iconic Charging Bull. Fearless Girl became a selfie-grabbing sensation almost instantly. But the Instagram hit was, in fact, an advertisement, created by Gumbiner and Wilson of the ad agency McCann.

McCann was commissioned by the Wall Street firm State Street Global Advisors to advertise its “Gender Diversity Index,” which tracks companies “advancing women through gender diversity” on their boards and in senior management roles. The campaign took Gumbiner and Wilson almost a year to create, with Gumbiner writing the copy for the plaque (and the tweets) accompanying Fearless Girl and Wilson crafting the visual design, along with Kristen Visbal, the artist hired to create the work.

The work had its critics and share of controversy. The artist of the Charging Bull, Arturo Di Modica, complained that Fearless Girl had turned his sculpture, intended to foster optimism after the market crash of the 1987, into something negative. Others pointed to the lack of gender diversity on State Street’s own board (in October, the company agreed to a $5 million settlement in a gender discrimination lawsuit).

But, after less than two months, the frenzied press around Fearless Girl had earned $7.4 million in free advertising for State Street. The statue’s cultural impact was even wider with many embracing it as a symbol of female empowerment. Among them was New York Mayor Bill de Blasio who intervened to extend Fearless Girl’s defiant stance from its original permit of only 30 days, through at least February 2018. “She is inspiring everyone at a moment when we need inspiration,” he told the Associated Press in March.

Edel Rodriguez

Illustrated some of the year’s most powerful and incendiary magazine covers

Political cartoons depicting the current U.S. president and his administration’s policies have been produced in droves this year—but few have cut as deep, and been shared as widely, as those by Rodriguez. The illustrator’s graphic depictions of President Trump began their viral ascent when news magazines like Time and Der Spiegel commissioned him to illustrate covers commenting on the U.S. presidential race last year. One, released by the German weekly just after the U.S. election took place, showed an orange comet resembling Trump. It hurtled towards earth, mouth gaping—ready to devour the planet in a single bite.

A string of additional covers and protest posters from Rodriguez have followed. His most controversial went to the presses on February 4th, just after the president issued his initial executive order banning travelers from seven majority-Muslim countries. Plastered on the front of Der Spiegel, it showed Trump holding a blood-stained knife in one hand and the decapitated head of the Statue of Liberty in the other.

The issue was personal for Rodriguez, a Cuban immigrant whose family came to the U.S. in 1980 seeking refuge from Fidel Castro’s totalitarian regime. His anger came through with caustic power in the illustration, and it quickly gained resonance across national borders and language barriers. Since then, he’s worked other further covers that criticize white nationalism, warmongering, and other timely political and social issues. Recently, he also produced a series of New York City subway posters, commissioned by the School of Visual Arts (where he’s also a faculty member), that aim to inspire activism and support free speech. In bold reds, blues, and yellows, they remind NYC commuters to “Wake Up!”, “Speak Up!”, and “Rise Up!”

Dana Schutz, Parker Bright, and Hannah Black

Ignited a national debate about who has the power to represent whom, and what qualifies as censorship

Photo by Michael Bilsborough. Courtesy of Parker Bright.

On March 17th, artist Bright walked into the Whitney wearing a shirt that read “BLACK DEATH SPECTACLE” in hand-written lettering, and stood in front of Open Casket (2016), a painting by the white artist Schutz in the Whitney Biennial. The work is an abstracted depiction of the corpse of Emmett Till, the 14-year old black boy who was lynched in 1955 for the falsified reason that he flirted with a white woman; his killers were white men who were later acquitted of the crime (by an all-white jury). Bright’s protest was followed by others and prompted a national debate about who has the power to represent whom, what qualifies as censorship, and the line between depicting real violence and exploiting the suffering of others.

“It is not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun,” wrote artist Black in an open letter signed by roughly 50 others calling for the work to be destroyed. To Black, Schutz’s painting was another example of a white artist “treating Black pain as raw material.” Whitney Biennial co-curators Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks invited debate but rejected calls to destroy the work or to take it down. Schutz herself said she will never sell or profit from the work. Still others saw calls to remove the work as censorship. “As artists and as human beings, we may encounter works we do not like and find offensive,” wrote Cuban-American artist Coco Fusco in Hyperallergic, arguing against its removal and eschewing the idea that only African Americans should be allowed to represent black suffering.

Ultimately the work remained on view until the biennial closed on June 11th. The questions it raised live on still, having come up in subsequent debates over race and representation as part of a broader culture war being waged on the art world’s left. However you choose to answer them, the questions of representation and power raised by Bright, Black, and (perhaps unintentionally) Schutz, are not confined to the white walls of a gallery space. (This year, after all, was one in which monuments to the Confederacy were torn from public squares.) What is seen, shown, and depicted has meaning that reaches far beyond the canvas.

Leonardo da Vinci

Smashed records for the most expensive artwork ever sold, drawing international attention to the art market and art’s intersection with geopolitics

After a drawn-out 19 minutes of bidding on November 15th, the fall of Christie’s auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen’s hammer at $400 million made Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi (c. 1500) the most expensive work of art ever sold. The audience gasped, cheered, and laughed, reactions that were soon shared by the world as word of the remarkable price spread, making headlines and morning show rundowns across the globe. It was a coup for Christie’s. The auction house set a new bar for how to create international fervor out of the transfer of capital between two private individuals. The work’s world tour caused lines of people to snake outside of Christie’s locations around the world, each hoping to catch a glimpse of what was billed as “the last da Vinci.” Some, dumbstruck, shed tears in front of the depiction of Jesus, a reaction New York-based advertising firm Droga5 gladly included in a dramatic video used to market the work.

The whole affair couldn’t have been more appropriate for an artist whose most famous work, the 1503 Mona Lisa, gained its notoriety as much from being stolen off the wall of the Louvre as for its artistic merits. Questions about Salvator Mundi’s authenticity, quality, and physical state were no match for the drive to possess this singular trophy. The acquisition also uniquely encapsulated art’s evolving role in the manufacture of soft-power and negotiation of geopolitics.

Following weeks of fervent speculation, the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism revealed that the Leonardo’s permanent home will be in the newly opened Louvre Abu Dhabi. Cultural tourism is one way the United Arab Emirates is attempting to diversify its sources of income beyond the vast oil reserves on which it sits. But, according to intelligence agencies and other sources who spoke to the New York Times, this was no ordinary museum acquisition. Instead, the piece was allegedly acquired through a little-known Saudi prince, Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud; although conflicting reports have suggested that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (known as MBS) was the real buyer at the time of the sale. The move comes amid Saudi military intervention in Yemen, a boycott of Qatar by both nations, and a crackdown on corruption expected to net the government $100 billion and further consolidate power in MBS’s hands.

Jochen Zeitz

Provided a major new platform for artists in the African continent to own their cultural narratives

When former Puma CEO and conservationist Zeitz opened the doors to Africa’s first major museum for contemporary art, the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town, South Africa, earlier this year, he gave the continent’s artists a stunning new launchpad. While the museum—housed in a former grain silo reimagined by British architect Thomas Heatherwick—drew criticism for replicating the Western construct of an art institution, and mostly filling its board (and top curatorial post) with white people, it is set to broadcast the strength of contemporary African art to the rest of the world.  

Zeitz has lent the institution his collection of art (including extensive holdings in contemporary African art) for at least the remainder of his life. It offers unprecedented access for Cape Town residents and visitors alike to work by some of the continent’s most established names, like William Kentridge and Nicholas Hlobo, as well as lesser-known artists. The museum is free to citizens of African countries during allotted times during the week, and the curatorial team reportedly has a substantial travel budget in order to survey the region’s diverse artistic talents and better represent the breadth of the continent’s cultural achievements.

The museum is also committed to creating opportunities not only for artists but for aspiring arts professionals: It comes with a curatorial program that will train curators from across the continent in hopes that they return to their respective communities and work with local artists. In a region of the world that’s so often subject to reductive perceptions and stereotypes, this suggests an opportunity for African countries to own their cultural narratives.

Pete Souza

Used the vast archive of images he took as Obama’s chief White House photographer to make subtly biting political commentary

From 2008 to 2017, chief White House photographer Souza captured nearly two million images of President Barack Obama. But Souza’s most relevant work began the day after Obama left 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Relieved of his official duties (and the impartiality that went with them), Souza set up a new Instagram account and began combing through his archives to create political commentary, with biting effect.

On January 21st, the day following President Donald Trump’s inauguration, he published a photograph of President Obama seated atop his desk in the Oval Office against the backdrop of amber-colored curtains. “I like these drapes better than the new ones. Don’t you think?” Souza wrote in the caption. It was the first in a steady stream of images posted by the photographer that juxtapose the values and actions of the two presidents.

In the wake of viral video footage in May showing first lady Melania Trump shoo away her husband’s hand in Tel Aviv, and again in Rome the following day, Souza published a photograph of former first lady Michelle Obama holding her husband’s hand in Selma, Alabama. “Holding hands,” the caption read. Another image, following Trump’s announcement of an immigration ban in January, presented Obama talking with a young refugee in Kuala Lumpur in 2015. His account quickly went viral on Obama-era nostalgia, growing to some 1.7 million followers at present, and sparked a new book, Obama: An Intimate Portrait, that was released in November and hit the top of Amazon’s best-seller list in its first week.

Among photojournalists, Souza’s account has also stood in contrast to the few photographs that have been published by Trump’s official photographer, Shealah Craighead. Taken together, the two photographers’ images contrast a president willing to let the public into his private sphere with one determined to keep the media at a distance.

Barkley L. Hendricks

Left behind a proud body of work that will influence art and fashion for generations

Barkley L. Hendricks, Icon for my Man Superman (Superman Never Saved Any Black People-Bobby Seale), 1969. © Estate of Barkley L. Hendricks. Courtesy of the artist’s estate and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Barkley L. Hendricks, Self-Portrait with Red Sweater, 1980/2013. © Estate of Barkley L. Hendricks. Courtesy of the artist’s estate and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

When Hendricks passed away this April at the age of 72, he left behind a body of work whose influence on art and fashion will continue to be felt for generations. With a close eye and skilled hand, Hendricks turned ordinary black subjects into icons of cool confidence, style, and attitude—the results of which featured prominently in the Tate Modern’s landmark exhibition “Soul of a Nation” this year, as well as in a tribute to the artist at Prospect.4 in New Orleans. The young woman in Lawdy Mama (1969) gazes out with stoic indifference from an arched gold canvas that evokes religious iconography of the Virgin Mary, her afro forming a halo. The man in Steve (1976), dressed in a white trench coat and reflective sunglasses, surveys his audience from on high. Whether clothed or nude, Hendricks’s figures largely appear against solid monochrome, existing in a timeless, abstract dimension where no compositional elements can distract from their palpable presence.

Foregoing the strictures of the Black Arts Movement, which encouraged black artists to use their art explicitly in service of racial justice, Hendricks instead elevated black men and women by placing them in the canon of Western art and representing them with grace and dignity. His work also displayed a wry humor: In Brilliantly Endowed (Self-Portrait) (1977), Hendricks alluded in his title to a description that the New York Times’s Hilton Kramer had applied to the artist’s talent, playing with the racially stereotyping phrase. In the painting, Hendricks stands naked except for a white cap, sneakers, and socks, his hand grazing his penis as though to slyly own the notion of his sexual and artistic prowess.

David Hockney

Drew record audiences to his traveling retrospective with his unusually broad appeal beyond the traditional confines of the art world

Hockney’s 2017 retrospective at Tate Britain smashed records (even beating out Damien Hirst’s 2012 Tate Modern show), drawing almost half a million visitors eager to bask before his bright, sun-splashed paintings; the exhibition subsequently traveled to Paris’s Centre Pompidou before arriving at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in November. At age 80, Hockney is considered one of the world’s greatest living painters, even as he continues to expand his techniques and approaches to the medium. On the heels of his much-publicized experimentations with iPad paintings over the past several years, he more recently unveiled new works with fresh, radically angular perspectives and irregularly shaped canvases.

The beloved British artist, who hails from Yorkshire but has lived in Los Angeles for much of his life, continues to enjoy an unusually broad appeal beyond the traditional confines of the art world, as demonstrated by the popular U.K. tabloid The Sun’s invitation to Hockney to redesign its logo earlier this year. (The artist’s resulting illustration received a mixed reception from the left-leaning art world due to the paper’s staunch, right-wing politics.) But Hockney is also an art world-favorite whose carefully observed portraits, optimistic studies in color, and vigorously experimental compositions are as full of life as they’ve ever been—and continue to influence generations of artists at a time when we’re seeing a new golden era of figurative painting.

Marilyn Minter

Provided a model for what the merger of art and activism should look like

Since the late 1960s, Minter has siphoned her personal experience as a woman into paintings, photographs, and videos that explore the strength and sexuality of the female body (her most controversial canvases from the 1990s depict food and female sexual pleasure). It’s not until the past year, however, that the artist’s ever-evolving feminist practice was celebrated in her first major retrospective: “Marilyn Minter: Pretty/Dirty” at the Brooklyn Museum. It was also this year that Minter demonstrated what a contemporary merger of art and activism should look like.

The show coincided with increasingly heated political and social debate around reproductive rights and sexual abuse—topics Minter has boldly addressed throughout her career and which the Brooklyn Museum provided a crucial platform for dialogue about in 2017. On the night of Donald Trump’s inauguration, for instance, Minter sat down with Madonna in the museum’s auditorium to discuss the intersection of art, politics, and women’s rights.

Minter also teamed up with the not-for-profit Creative Time this year on “Pledges of Allegiance,” a series of flags emblazoned with messages by 16 artists. Minter’s read “Resist” in all-capital letters; it originally hung outside the Midtown high-rise office building and exhibition space Lever House, but was quickly relocated after complaints from the building’s tenants (many have called the removal an act of censorship).

Most recently, Minter and curator Adrianna Campbell opened Anger Management, a boutique embedded in the Brooklyn Museum. It sold artist-designed objects—like hand-painted “Resistance” thongs by Laurie Simmons—that aren’t shy about their makers’ distrust of the current administration. Though the physical shop closed in November, some items are still available online, and all profits go to charities and organizations like Planned Parenthood and the ACLU.

Awol Erizku

Broke the record for Instagram’s most-liked photo with an image that powerfully challenges the predominantly white narratives of art history

In February, Beyoncé posted a portrait of herself on Instagram to announce to the world that she was expecting twins. The photograph pictures the cultural icon donning a veil and clutching her belly in a way that recalls the Virgin Mary. Within hours, it became the platform’s most popular post of all time, clocking more than 7.2 million likes the first day it was published.

Shared on the first day of Black History Month, the photograph was taken by 29-year-old artist Erizku, who has long rewritten Western art history through his work to include people of color. For one series, Erizku traveled to his birthplace of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to capture photographs that depict female sex workers reclining in the style of paintings like Édouard Manet’s Olympia (1863). This year, at Ben Brown Fine Arts in London, he mounted a solo exhibition titled  “Make America Great Again”; and at Night Gallery in Los Angeles, he presented a body of work using imagery sourced from a rejected 1968 Black Panther coloring book to explore institutionalized racism and police brutality in the United States.

Erizku’s art has penetrated the prevailing but not always particularly substantive realm of popular culture: His photograph of Beyoncé unseated a Selena Gomez selfie in which she was sipping Coca-Cola from a straw as Instagram’s most popular image. That title was also previously held by a Kendall Jenner selfie in which her hair had been arranged to resemble a series of hearts. Erizku’s photograph’s popularity coincided with a 78-percent increase in the use of the “photography” hashtag on Instagram this year, according to data provided by the platform. And the fact that an artwork—never mind one that tackles racial bias during a time when the United States is undergoing a significant reckoning over institutionalized racism—can now reach more people in a day than the number who attend the Louvre in a year marks a major milestone in the history of visual culture.

Maria Balshaw

Became the first woman to direct the Tate

Photo by Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images.

It is fitting that in 2017, the year that women’s voices suddenly seemed capable of toppling powerful men, the Tate appointed Balshaw as its first female director. A self-described feminist, she has a track record of showing work by women and artists from marginalized groups in her previous roles as director of the Whitworth Art Gallery and the Manchester Art Gallery.

Balshaw takes the helm of one of the most-visited museum networks in the world: The Tate Modern alone received about 6.4 million visitors in 2017, and the Tate Britain another 1.1 million (there are two other Tate galleries, one in Liverpool and one in the seaside town of St. Ives). Her aim is also to make it one of the most inclusive art institutions, capable of being “as relevant to young people in Southwark,” Tate Modern’s London neighborhood, as it is “to visitors from Seoul,” or “people who might not think any of the art is for them,” she said earlier this year.

Known for her warmth, people skills, and diplomacy, Balshaw must now navigate a new government funding scheme for the arts that diverts resources outside of London, and woo the base of wealthy donors and corporate sponsors established by her predecessor, Sir Nicholas Serota. She’ll also need those qualities as she continues to push the boundaries of what the Tate shows and when, while increasing the amount of politically and socially engaged art the museum shows, which is also part of her plan. She showed her colors nearly as soon as she started, responding rapidly to a suggestion on Twitter to exhibit work by Khadija Saye, an artist who died in London’s Grenfell Tower fire in June, by hanging a silkscreen print of one of Saye’s photographs, which had been in the 2017 Venice Biennale, at the Tate Britain.

Artsy Editors

Commissioned video and photographs produced by Blink. Photography by Rush Jagoe, Emiliano Granado, Greg Funnel, Steven Herman, Alex Welsh, and Andrew Moynehan for Artsy.

Video header, in order of appearance: Portrait of Solange in New Orleans, Louisiana by Rush Jagoe for Artsy; Anne Imhof, Faust at the Venice Biennale, 2017. Footage by Peter Cairns. Courtesy of BAL Productions; portrait of Agnes Gund in her New York City home by Emiliano Granado for Artsy (artwork by Christo, 9 Packed Bottles, 1965; Mark Rothko, Two Greens with Red Stripe, 1964. © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; and Stanley Whitney, By the Love of Those Unloved, 2004); excerpt from The Atlantic’s “How Pink ‘Pussyhats’ Took Over the Women’s March”; Women’s March footage courtesy of Patrick Gavin; portrait of Jochen Zeitz in his Richmond, London home by Greg Funnel for Artsy; portrait of Yusaku Maezawa in his Tokyo home by Steven Herman for Artsy (artwork by Willem de Kooning, Cross-Legged Figure, 1972. Bronze with brown patina, 24x18x15 ⅛ in. © 2017 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Roy Lichtenstein, Figures, 1977. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein); Fearless Girl footage courtesy of McCann New York; portrait of Edel Rodriguez at his studio in New Jersey by Alex Welsh for Artsy; portrait of David Hockney at The Metropolitan Museum of Art by Andrew Moynehan for Artsy. Video edited by Kate Emerson.

Artworks pictured in Yusaku Maezawa’s second video portrait by: Alexander Calder, Red Crescent, Blue Post, 1955. © 2017 Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Henry Moore, Reclining Nude: Crossed Feet, 1980. © The Henry Moore Foundation. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2017 / Artwork pictured in Agnes Gund’s second video portrait by: Harmony Korine, Sullny Check, 2015.

Still portrait of Agnes Gund in her New York City home by Emiliano Granado for Artsy (artwork by Christo, 9 Packed Bottles, 1965; Mark Rothko, Two Greens with Red Stripe, 1964. © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; and Stanley Whitney, By the Love of Those Unloved, 2004).