Art by African Americans

Artwork Image
Media - 2011.16 - SAAM-2011.16_1 - 75736

Mickalene Thomas, Portrait of Mnonja2010, rhinestones, acrylic, and enamel on wood panel, Smithsonian American Art Museum

SAAM is home to one of the most significant collections of African American art in the world, with more than 2,000 works by more than 200 African American artists.

These artworks span three centuries of creative expression in various media, including painting, sculpture, textiles, and photography, and represent numerous artistic styles, from realism to neoclassicism, abstract expressionism, modernism, and folk art. From an important grouping of recently acquired works by self-taught artist Bill Traylor to William H. Johnson’s vibrant portrayals of faith and family, to Mickalene Thomas’s contemporary exploration of black female identity, the museum’s holdings reflect its long-standing commitment to Black artists and the acquisition, preservation, and display of their work.


The artists included in SAAM’s collection powerfully evoke themes both universal and specific to the African American experience. Many reflect the tremendous social and political change that occurred from the early Republic to the Civil War, through the rise of industry, the Jazz Age and the Harlem Renaissance, the post-war years, the Civil Rights movement to present day questions of personal identity and racism.

Learn More From Black Artists

The Collection

Beginning in the mid-1960s the museum acquired significant works by African American artists including Sargent Johnson’s Mask and James Hampton’s visionary installation, The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly, as well as works by Romare Bearden, William H. Johnson, and Alma Thomas from New York’s Harmon Foundation. In 1980, objects from the Warren Robbins collection became part of the museum, including works by nineteenth century artists Joshua Johnson, the earliest documented professional African American painter; classical landscapes by Edward Mitchell Bannister and Robert Scott Duncanson; and neoclassical sculptures by Edmonia Lewis, the first professional African American sculptor.

Six years later, the museum acquired more than 400 works by folk and self-taught artists from the holdings of Waide Hemphill, Jr. including paintings by Sister Gertrude Morgan and Bill Traylor.

Modern and contemporary artists featured in SAAM's collection include Benny AndrewsMark Bradford, Nick CaveThornton Dial, Sr., Sam Gilliam, Arthur JafaLoïs Mailou Jones, Jacob Lawrence, Kerry James Marshall, Martin Puryear, Faith Ringgold, Cauleen SmithAlma Thomas, and Kara Walker, among others.

Important holdings in photography include works by Dawoud BeyRoy DeCarava, Roland Freeman, Marilyn Nance, Gordon Parks, and James Van Der Zee.