The New Generation of Black Artists Boldly Redefining Conceptual Art
Writing about the value and difficulty of pursuing conceptualism as a Black artist, Glenn Ligon once articulated, “It’s hard to leave your body behind, especially when your body is always being thrown up in your face. But being heavy is a motherfucker.”
For Ligon, the move towards ideas is a luxury that few Black artists can afford. The pursuit of theory, according to Ligon, is burdened by the weight of representing Black culture. Turning to the work of David Hammons, Ligon posits that the heaviness of culture will always index Black conceptual art—no matter how minimalist or maximalist the artist’s style—because our culture prefaces our existence under systems of white supremacy.
Through conceptual art, artists are able to critique the tension of culture and lived experience to directly address systemic racism and sexism. It provides an avenue to provoke institutions and audiences to critically reevaluate their relationship to power. Black conceptual artists are restoring access to the knowledge of their histories by framing their Black subjectivity as a generative source of intellectual possibility. By reclaiming this weight of culture, Black artists are able to treat lived experiences as specialized, hyper-specific histories that cannot be easily reduced to simplistic interpretation by others.
A generation of Black conceptual artists—including the aforementioned Ligon, Hammons, Lorna Simpson, and Adrian Piper, among others—have redefined 20th-century artmaking and practice. Reshaping that landscape once again, more than 20 years into the 21st century, are a new group of Black conceptual artists, including American Artist, Tiona Nekkia McClodden, Kevin Beasley, Tourmaline, Ja’Tovia Gary, Emmanuel Massillon, Dominique Duroseau, Charisse Pearlina Weston, and Kevin Claiborne.
Artsy spoke with Gary, Massillon, Duroseau, Weston, and Claiborne to map out their inspirations and approaches to making conceptual art amid a landscape where painting sells. Rather than force themselves into molds that were never built for them, these artists make work that, as Gary explained, “prioritizes which container best supports the idea.” This approach allows Black conceptual artists to develop multi-hyphenated practices that cover painting, photography, sculpture, installation, and video art—turning the heaviness Ligon described into a transformative practice across disciplines.
B. 1998, Washington, D.C. Lives and works in New York and Washington, D.C.
Portrait of Emmanuel Massillon. Courtesy of the artist.
Emmanuel Massillon can be seen as a master sampler, an artist digging through the depths of archival history and remixing it to offer fresh, insightful commentary on issues affecting Black communities. Raised in the inner city of Washington, D.C., Massillon grew up observing how systemic oppression shapes and limits Black communities through food deserts, housing insecurity, and gentrification.
“Creating my art practice, I thought about problems in my own community, and I wanted to shine light on things that I did not see reflected in art on a mass scale,” Massillon said. “Any other type of art, like becoming a pure painter, or a pure sculptor, I couldn’t get all my ideas across in the way that I wanted to do.”
Most of Massillon’s inspiration comes from music. He recalled a childhood in which community members aspired to use music creation as an avenue to escape economic hardship. That intense engagement with music, specifically through sampling, has bled into Massillon’s own work. “How a producer would sample different records to create a beat, so, too, would I sample other artists and bring their ideology into my art practice to create my unique voice,” Massillon added.
Incorporating quotidian objects, Massillon transforms everyday, ready-made materials into alluring works of art. In one recent, ongoing series, the artist layers dog food to create heavily textured paintings that mimic the thick brushstrokes seen across the Abstract Expressionist paintings of Clyfford Still, whom Massillon cites as an inspiration. Aptly titled “Dog Food” (2022–present) in reference to the material and the Black vernacular slang for heroin in the 1970s, the series delivers an impactful commentary on opioid addiction in Black communities.
In another work, Say Your Grace with Me (2022), Massillon frames images of African sculptures with sunflower seeds to create a haptic photomontage that addresses the absence of grocery stores and fresh produce in inner cities. For Massillon, materials help him index social problems in ways that would not have the same effect if he represented the crises in narrative painting.
Massillon’s first introduction to conceptual art came through self-study, not art school. He cites the 2019 Smithsonian exhibition “Artists Respond: American Art and the Vietnam War, 1965–1975” as a seminal influence. The group show opened him up to alternative forms of artmaking that were now validated by institutions. Discovering Black conceptual artists like Hammons, Terry Adkins, and Betye Saar further empowered him to use materials from his environment to make art. “I like conceptual art because it is so weird,” Massillon said. “It makes you really question what’s going on.”
B. 1984, Dallas. Lives and works in Dallas.
Portrait of Ja’Tovia Gary by Ciara Bryant. Courtesy of Ja’Tovia Gary.
Ja’Tovia Gary, who was featured in The Artsy Vanguard 2020, is a self-described Black maximalist. She embraces the “extra-ness” of Black culture, from hair politics and dress to music production, building something that intentionally occupies space. This can be seen in as you yield her your body and soul (2022), a large-scale sculpture of a pyramid made of cotton balls onto which video is projected. The work was featured in “partus/chorus,” the 2022 group show Gary curated at galerie frank elbaz, which represents the artist alongside Paula Cooper Gallery. Gary also recently received film and television representation from the entertainment agency WME.
Across experimental analog techniques within film, sculpture, and non-fiction cinema, Gary pushes against universally held truths to examine the possibilities of what lies on the other side of reality. “I want to expand our thinking of what reality could be and what the past is and what our position is,” she said. “My goal is to world-bend, to shape our perception, and to challenge our long-held positions.”
With a deft archival and tactical hand, Gary is singular for crafting an original aesthetic with film. Most notably, her breakout 2015 work An Ecstatic Experience uses a combination of hand-drawn animation, digital manipulations, archival footage, and shot film. Tracing history’s impact on the present, Gary records her hand-drawn artistic interventions onto archival footage, evoking the films of Stan Brakhage. Gary’s methods are informed by her Black, Southern, queer lineage of “using what you have to make what you want,” as she described it, adding, “I’m obsessed with the notion that the idea of the thing outweighs the materials.”
Recently, Gary has expanded her artistic practice to include sculpture. Her first, Citational Ethics (Saidiya Hartman, 2017) (2020), was inspired by scholar Saidiya Hartman and draws from Black women critical thinkers to solidify a genealogy of intellectual thought. The second sculpture in the “Citational Ethics” series (2020–present) features a quote by Toni Morrison from her 1987 novel Beloved that states, “There is no bad luck in the world but white folks.” The sign made a sensational splash at Art Basel in Miami Beach last year, and is modeled after the Lorraine Motel in Memphis where Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered.
For Gary, these callbacks shape the present and reveal the circuitous nature in which oppression entangles Black communities. She dives deep into the history and memories that haunt Black contemporary life. And yet, through the intellectual work of Black women, Gary provides hope across her practice, even when it lies in the darkest of places.
B. 1989, Camp Springs, Maryland. Lives and works in New York.
Portrait of Kevin Claiborne by Gioncarlo Valentine. Courtesy of Kevin Claiborne.
Across photography, collage, and printmaking, Kevin Claiborne grapples with the impressions left by Black culture that go unrecognized by mainstream records. With an MFA from Columbia University and degrees in mathematics and higher education, Claiborne carefully revisits Black archives through written intervention.
His traces, marks, and drawings function like a palimpsest, where the artist marks over a record to add to its existence or make something new, not unlike an oral historian embellishing a narrative with each retelling. Inspired by the Great Unconformity—a missing space of sediment in Earth’s geological record between 100 million and 1 billion years ago—Claiborne grapples with what has been lost or erased across his family history.
The Harlem-based artist takes inspiration from fashion photography and advertising. He cites Barbara Kruger for revealing to him the uneasy relationship that can arise between texts and images. Through this misalignment, Claiborne found answers that emboldened him to ask provocative questions about the Black body that would otherwise be left unsaid in public spaces.
In his solo exhibition “Fragmentation” at sobering in Paris earlier this summer, a series of collages of Black icons were juxtaposed against African sculptures and text to comment on the word “black” as both a color and descriptor of a people. Through this process, Claiborne has positioned himself as a descendent of Black conceptual artists like Lorna Simpson, Adrian Piper, Charles Gaines, Carrie Mae Weems, Octavia Butler, and Fred Moten alongside peers like American Artist, Nekkia McClodden, and Emmanuel Massillon.
Like many conceptual artists, Claiborne’s work prioritizes the integrity of the idea over the aesthetic outcome. “Working conceptually is a necessary and political starting point for me, because through this practice, one can reach a deeper, more critical space where a wider range of responses and conversations become available,” he said.
Claiborne defines Black conceptual thought as an immeasurable asset to contemporary creative practices with the capacity to transform the art world. He further added, “I believe there are many Black artists creating conceptual art that honors those who came before us while still taking risks and offering new exciting approaches [to see the world].”
B. 1978, Chicago. Lives and works in New Haven, Connecticut.
Portrait of Dominique Duroseau. Courtesy of the artist.
Conceptual art both frustrates and liberates Dominique Duroseau. “I was so mad!” she told Artsy, describing her first encounter with conceptual art. The work was Robert Smithson’s Map of Broken Glass (Atlantis) (1969) at Dia Beacon. “There’s this pile of glass lying on the floor and I’m supposed to believe that the glass slowly transforms over time?” she asked. “Or is it that I’m getting older and that’s where the transformation happens?”
The lack of resolution left a lasting impression on Duroseau, who first encountered the work while pursuing a degree in architecture. In the years since, Duroseau has reached an agreement with the piece and now believes that the value of Map of Broken Glass(Atlantis) comes from its simple request of audiences to spend time trying to understand it, the very same action Duroseau demands in her own practice.
Born in Chicago, raised in Haiti, and currently based in New Haven while she pursues an MFA at Yale University, Duroseau grapples with how anti-Blackness dehumanizes the Black body to become an object devoid of feelings like tenderness and pain. The interdisciplinary artist works across sound, soft sculpture, and performance to trouble the audience’s perceptions of Blackness.
For Duroseau, the biggest difficulty in her practice concerns the societal beliefs of what a Black artist can or cannot do in their practice. While minimalist works like Smithson’s Map of Broken Glass (Atlantis) and Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs (1965) have influenced her, Duroseau expressed that, much like Gary, her work demands a maximalist aesthetic practice. “As a Black woman, I feel that I cannot move that minimalistically,” she said.
In numerous group shows at LatchKey Gallery, which represents the artist, Duroseau has presented soft sculptures where clothes intermingle, overlap, and obstruct the viewer’s gaze. The works embody fullness in their delivery. Made of layers of black fabric and materials like garbage bags, her sculptures evoke Robert Morris’s felt installations from the late 1960s, and provoke audiences to touch the work. “I want people to feel their bodies when they look at my work, to think about what that material feels like against the flesh,” she said.
Duroseau’s rich practice is cultivated by various sources of inspiration that range from Theaster Gates, Pope.L, and Ralph Lemon to the television programming on BET. “Those shows never fully had an ending, and at first I was frustrated by these abrupt endings, but then I realized that the non-resolution was the ending,” she explained. Much like her experience with Smithson, Duroseau finds generosity in ambiguity, adding, “I try to create work in a manner that suggests that the ending is something internally realized by audiences.”
Charisse Pearlina Weston
B. 1988, Houston. Lives and works in New York.
Portrait of Charisse Pearlina Weston. Courtesy of the artist.
With the capacity to make shards of mirrors soft, Charisse Pearlina Weston experiments with glass to reflect and refract the violence of anti-Blackness. For held, I invert, I lift (nothing if not the moment dark space collisions itself) (2022), Weston mounted a photographic decal onto glass, but its base evokes folded blankets and more delicate materials than the glass, lead, and metal it is constructed from. By transforming the appearance of her mediums, Weston delivers a pointed critique about the power to modify concepts in relation to the material substances that ground them.
In her work, Weston reuses materials from past exhibitions, engaging with the fecundity of the mediums rather than their perceived limitations. In this way, her sculpture and photography practices mirror Black life in the ability to create new meaning from fractures and fragments. “I think Black conceptual artists have the unique ability to place pressure on the pulse of the oppressive structures which undergird global capitalism,” she said.
Weston cites the way her parents decorated their family home as her first exposure to conceptual art. She signals her parents’ ability to reuse material for personal use as a positive introduction to the idea that anything can be remade for others. “My parents used that space and its reconstruction to hold and formulate an image of them/ourselves within the context of Black interiors,” Weston explained. “We used our hands, our imaginations, and our limited resources to defy the confines of that space—literally moving up and out with no blueprint in the traditional sense.”
Weston received an MFA from the University of California, Irvine, and her first institutional solo exhibition, “of [a] tomorrow: lighter than air, stronger than whiskey, cheaper than dust,” opens October 2nd at the Queens Museum. She lists numerous conceptual artists as influential to her practice, including Leslie Hewitt, Renée Green, Christopher Wilmarth, Oscar Muñoz, Tania Pérez Córdova, Richard Serra, Jose Alejandro Restrepo, and Cildo Meireles. Through this dense, personal, and artistic archive, Weston positions the act of worldmaking futures within Black artists’ capacity for regeneration—that is, like Massillon echoed, the capacity to take anything and make something that speaks to your lived experience.
“We come from a lineage of people who conjured an otherwise in the most complex and bleak times, so I feel it is our duty to do justice to that heritage,” she said. “Black conceptualism is so exciting now because of the myriad of voices, mediums, and perspectives being given space to breathe.”