Black Art Matters: How Activism and Black Art Have Influenced History

(Artist Tiff Massey)

Art is an expression that transcends barriers. Used in a way that penetrates race, gender, sex or nationality, art can relay unspoken messages to the masses. The intersection of Black expressions of art and activism have long since been a mirror society used to reflect issues of that time. Dating back to the Harlem Renaissance African Americans have used art to penetrate the soul while telling a story of Black experience. Today, there is a resurgence of Black creatives through literature, music and artwork who shine a light on social injustice of today.

Acting as gatekeepers of history, artists use their media to keep an accurate account of modern-day struggles. For one artist, the enjoyment of the talent sometimes cannot compare to the responsibility it carries.

“We are the tellers of the time, whether you’re a visual artist, or a writer, or a musician, especially if you’re Black or of color, period. I feel like we don’t have the luxury of doing things just because we enjoy doing them,” Sydney James, a local Detroit muralist says. “I have the burden, or the duty, to really tell these stories. If we don’t tell our own stories, they’re going to tell them for us and we already know how that’s going to go.”

With activism in his blood, Detroit artist Mario Moore began exploring political art in college. A graduate of the College of Creative Studies and Yale University, and grandson of Detroit activist Helen Moore, the visual artist believes art is the catalyst that may spark change.

“What’s more effective for me is to make artwork that talks about the Black human experience, and within that I’m dealing with certain issues that only we face, repetitively. I’m giving voice for people who can take action. I don’t think my artwork can be sponsored as activism, but it might get people to think about things and make those people go out and take that action,” Moore says.

Mario Moore


Emerging to take action, the Black Arts Movement (BAM) of the 1960s and 1970s helped to promote Black pride and activism. Giving a voice to Black artists and inspiring generations to come, BAM helped to lay a concrete foundation for the movement and what activism looks like.

“I think me just showing up to a space is activism,” Sydney James says. “As a Black woman, doing what I do, I think just my existence is activism.”

Still relevant in their works, artists in the BAM movement used various artistic media to beautifully magnify Black pride. Through its artistry, the organization provided a space Blacks could represent their shared experiences unapologetically.

“We live in a constant state of having to make other people comfortable with our presence, which is ridiculous because we’re here,” James says.

For other artists, displays of activism in art manifest in a more subtle manner. Attacking the problem from multiple angles, Black creatives are not only using their works to invoke change or consciousness but taking to the community and providing spaces to learn and grow.

“I think it looks different depending on what you do. I know for myself, I’m an educator, so in terms of activism, it’s important to me to equip the younger generation with intellectual weapons they can use in the world to come,” Tylonn Sawyer, artist and educator, says.

Tylonn Sawyer


In urbanized gentrified communities like Detroit, large investors and stakeholders continue to purchase land from the hands of those who inhabit it. To take a stand and guarantee Black art would have a permanent space, a local Detroit artist uses the profits from her art to acquire land in the city.


“I took it a step further and once I saw all the new Detroiters coming in to acquire all this land, I was like I need some land because what is the future of art in Detroit? Whose face is it going to be?” Tiff Massey asks. “I was really worried about having a permanent placement in the city. Now that I have a permanent placement, I’m trying to make sure other artists have a permanent placement. That’s activism.”


Sydney James


On the heels of the Black Lives Matter movement, political art has become increasingly prevalent. For Massey, eliminating the need for protest art and deadly procedures for Black communities is what should be done.

“Who cares about political art? Black people just don’t want to die for no reason,” Massey says. “If we actually had systems in place that were actually set up for everyone, there would be no activism. There would be no protest art.”

Stemming from and sparking marches across the nation, the continual murders of several young Black men and women kicked activism into high gear and opened the door for a new wave of expressionism art.

“With the death of Mike Brown and the rise of Black Live Matters, I started to see the rise of this racial tension. It’s not that it’s new. It’s just became more mainstream,” Sawyer says.

Building more traction, the constant fight for justice and equality for communities of color is a theme likely to be repeated in various art forms.

“It’s just so tiresome to respond all the time. I think that’s what us Black artists do the most is just respond because there are so many injustices that are happening on a regular basis,” Massey says.

Staying true to the craft and the message, Black artists are creating a path for upcoming artist to follow. Authenticity and the correct approach are requirements to carrying the torch.

“I would really hope that most of the artists that are creating work that has some kind of activist approach, whether they mean it or not, are empathetic and really mean what they’re making,” Moore says.


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