Describe the critical strategies of the Black Arts Movement, connecting the political and visual work of Black artists during the Civil Rights era

Learning Objectives

  • Describe the critical of the Black Arts Movement, connecting the political and visual work of Black artists during the Civil Rights era
  • Understand how contemporary art works as part of social justice movements
  • Critically analyze the particular artistic strategy of appropriation

Led by Black artists and activists, The Black Arts Movement (mid-1960s to mid-1970s) was the visual and cultural arm of the Civil Rights and Black Liberation Movements. Black artists often combined the visual tendencies of Pop Art, patterns inspired by African textiles, and images of civil unrest to create forceful agitprop imagery that directly responded to racism and anti-Black oppression. Artists also organized groups such as Spiral, Weusi, AfriCOBRA and the BECC to achieve a number of goals: protesting social injustice; integrating museum art collections that privileged white artists; developing a shared visual language or “black aesthetic”; and bringing art to disenfranchised communities through mural painting and community outreach. Thus, visual artists of the Black Arts Movement were both activists and artists, fusing their social and political goals with their artistic creations.

One of the primary of this movement was appropriation. I call this strategy “critical” because it often takes a critical stance toward whatever it is re-using, or prompts the viewer to more critically examine something in culture we might otherwise take for granted.

The paradox of a racist image transformed into a sign of liberation is at play in Betye Saar’s Liberation of Aunt Jemima (1972). The highly recognizable symbol of pancake mix and maple syrup is also a racist stereotype—the “mammy” figure who was originally dressed as a minstrel character. It was only in June, 2020, that Quaker removed the figure of Aunt Jemima in recognition of this stereotype dating back to slavery. Saar uses that stereotype, demonstrating where it comes from by using the image of the Black “mammy” servant who cares for white children. While Aunt Jemima has a broom in one hand, she has a gun in the other. The repetition of her face in the background is a reference to Andy Warhol’s work, drawing our attention to the mass cultural repetition and circulation of her image. If I were to describe the visual effects of this work, I would focus on the particular juxtapositions Saar uses (the things she puts side by side to spark connections): the tension between the character’s grinning and the violence implied by the gun is unsettling. That violence is also implied in connection with the image of the Black maid—a domestic stereotype of subservience that worked culturally to keep Black people oppressed. This is just my reading, but I want you to consider how the visual choices the artist makes affect you as the viewer.

What this work also makes clear is that the Black body is political—in this moment, images of Black people circulate through visual cultures in ways that are oppressive, but they can also be liberatory in the hands of these artists. The nonviolent social protests of the Civil Rights Era evolved into the more militant age of Black Power and Black Liberation by the late 1960s; Black artists began using more militant imagery to promote Black empowerment and liberation in response to the white backlash against civil rights.

We will continue discussing the specific works of Black feminist artists like Saar next week, but it’s important to note that women were a crucial in the Black Arts Movement, even as they were often dismissed by both the white dominated art world and by Black men in the movement.

Guiding Questions

  • What role did Black artists play in the Civil Rights movement?
  • What visual strategies did Black artist-activists of the 1960s and 70s useto promote civil rights and racial justice?

Key concepts and Resources

  •  (Tate)
  •  (Tate)
  • Artist Collectives: , WEUSI,  (discussed in reading)
  • Black Power
  • Black nationalism (discussed in reading)

To Read and View

  •  (exhibition review)

More artists and examples to use for your posts:

  •  (Hyperallergic, exhibition review)
  •  (Brooklyn Museum)


Attend class meeting on Wednesday at 3:55

Discussion Posts:

Due Thurs., Feb. 24 (midnight) : Discuss one work of art associated with the Black Arts Movement. What visual strategies does the artist use to promote civil rights and justice for Black Americans? What visual effects do their choices create—what is the emotional tone of the work, and how is this created visually? Consider the form, the subject, and the context of the work.

Due Fri., Feb. 25 (midnight) : Respond to one post by another student. You may add to their analysis by pointing out something they did not notice, extend their analysis by offering a different perspective or interpretation. (Write at least 3 full sentences beyond merely “agreeing.”)

DUE Friday, FEB 25 Describe the Black Arts Movement. How did artists associated with this movement participate in Civil Rights and Black Power movements during the 1960s-70s? What particular visual strategies did they use in their work (associated with a “Black aesthetic”)? How did these artists use their art to promote racial justice and fight oppression? (Discuss 1-2 examples)