OVER THE PAST YEAR, a number of black artists and curators have made news on a regular basis, whether for groundbreaking projects and exhibitions, or for earning a significant honor or appointment. These key figures—both established and recently eclipsing emerging status—are not only pushing their own practices and institutions in innovative new directions, they are engaged in the broader culture. They are redefining contemporary art, both its presentation and production, and diversifying the art history canon.

This year, Culture Type’s second annual review of African American and African diasporic art begins with an exploration of the newsmakers who stood out in 2015—the most compelling visionaries of the year (in alpha order).

NEXT, CULTURE TYPE looks back at The Year in Black Art 2015 in monthly installments in the coming days. Tomorrow, the rollout begins with noteworthy moments from January 2015.

Designing architectural spaces with an artist’s sensibility

With his design for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture taking shape on the national mall in Washington, D.C., news came in July that the Studio Museum in Harlem planned to construct a new building designed by architect David Adjaye. Based in the UK and New York, the British-Ghanaian architect has a global footprint, working on projects that usually have an arts and culture focus. Featuring more than 30 projects, “Form, Heft, and Material” opened in January at Haus der Kunst in Munich, where Okwui Enwezor serves as director and organized the exhibition. The presentation included the premiere of “David Adjaye: Collaborations,” the documentary film by Oliver Hardt presents a portrait of the architect through the eyes of people with whom he has worked. The exhibition is the most extensive survey of Adjayes career and has traveled to the Art Institute of Chicago where it remains on view (titled “Making Place: The Architecture of David Adjaye”) through Jan. 3, 2016. A formidable catalog published in April accompanies the exhibition. Adjaye also collaborated with Enwezor on the Venice Biennale, designing unique venues for the Italian exhibition which was on view from May through November. “David Adjaye Selects” is on view at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum through Feb. 15, 2016. He has designed furniture, including the Double Zero chair for Moroso and his textile collection with Knoll debuted in June. Adjaye has appeared on the cover of numerous publications, including the February edition of Cultured and The Economist’s Intelligent Life magazine in July/August. Adaye was awarded the 2016 Eugene McDermott Award in the Arts at MIT in September and as a part of the honor will participate in four public programs at the university next year.

READ MORE Architect David Adjaye, the Studio Museum in Harlem, and 21st Century Design

mark bradford discusses 'be strong boquan' at h+w - photo by victoria l. valentine
Nov. 6, 2015: Mark Bradford discusses his exhibition “Be Strong Boquan” at Hauser and Wirth New York, with “Dead Hummingbird,” 2015 (mixed media on canvas). | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine

Addressing difficult subjects with beautiful abstractions

Los Angeles-based artist Mark Bradford paints beautiful, layered abstract canvases that explore poignant social issues. He is the co-founder of Art + Practice, an art and education foundation. Critically recognized around the world, he pushes his impressive practice to new levels each year. He mounted “Scorched Earth,” his first exhibition in his hometown at the Hammer Museum in June and, in November, “Be Strong Boquan” opened at Hauser and Wirth, his first New York exhibition with gallery, which represents him. Bradford’s work broke three records at auction this year, the latest was about $5.7 million (including fees) when “Constitution IV,” 2013 (mixed-media on canvas) sold for nearly twice the high estimate at Phillips London on Oct. 14. The New Yorker published a major profile of Bradford and he received a Medal of Art honor from the U.S. State Department. He discussed his views on police killing black men; announced his first presentation in Washington, D.C., a 360-degree mural at the Hirshhorn Museum set to debut in November 2016; and revealed what inspires him at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Finally, two new volumes documenting Bradford’s work were published in 2015— “Mark Bradford: Scorched Earth.” and “Mark Bradford: My Head Became a Rock,” an over-scaled, limited edition artist’s book.

READ MORE With ‘Be Strong Boquan,’ Mark Bradford Pushes His Painting Practice and Flexes His Comedy Chops

Njideka Akunyili Crosby. | Courtesy of Paul Smith

Portraying a fresh perspective of African immigrants

After winning the Smithsonian’s James Dicke Contemporary Art Prize last year, Njideka Akunyili Crosby made a number of strides in 2015. Born in Nigeria, she lives and works in Los Angeles, where two exhibitions of her large-scale works combining collage, painting, drawing and printmaking were mounted this fall. In September, “Njideka Akunyili Crosby: The Beautyful Ones,” opened at Mark Bradford’s Art + Practice. Her first exhibition in Los Angeles, the show was presented in conjunction with “Hammer Projects: Njideka Akunyili-Crosby” (Oct. 3, 2015 – Jan. 10, 2016) at the Hammer Museum, which marked her museum debut in the city. Beyond being an individual achievement, the exhibitions were a boon for African American women artists as a whole, whose opportunities over the years at the city’s big three museums have been few and far between. In October, Akunyili Crosby received the Studio Museum in Harlem’s 10th Annual Joyce Alexander Wien Artist Prize. She participated in the Artist Project at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and earlier this month, recognized for “collaging the immigrant experience,” Akunyili Crosby was named among the 100 Leading Global Thinkers of 2015 by Foreign Policy Magazine.

READ MORE Studio Museum Awards 2015 Wein Artist Prize to Njideka Akunyili Crosby

Diversifying the art world with global vision

The director of the Haus der Kunst museum in Munich, Germany, and founder of Nka Journal of Contemporary African Art, Okwui Enwezor has overseen a number of biennials around the world and served as artistic director of Documenta 11. This year, the Nigerian-born curator and critic was artistic director of the 56th Venice Biennale (May 9-Nov. 26, 2015), the first African to hold the post. Titled “All the World’s Futures,” the international art exhibition featured more than 35 black artists and venues designed by architect David Adjaye. At the start of the year, Enwezor organized the exhibition “David Adjaye: Form, Heft, Material,” at Haus der Kunst. He graced the cover of Men’s Italian Vogue in May. In November, when the German government gave Haus der Kunst $23 million for renovations, Enwezor said the funding “affirms and strengthens our core mission to serve old and new audiences, and provide them a lively forum and strong access for the encounter and appreciation of the art and ideas of different generations of contemporary artists.” “All the World’s Futures: 56 International Art Exhibition,” a catalog box set was published to document the Venice Biennale. Enwezor ranks No. 17 on Art Reviews 2015 Power 100 list.

READ MORE 2015 Venice Biennale to Include More than 35 Black Artists

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS, SEPTEMBER 12, 2015 : LaToya Ruby Frazier photographed in Chicago (John D. & Catherine MacArthur Foundation)
CHICAGO, ILLINOIS, SEPTEMBER 12, 2015: LaToya Ruby Frazier photographed in Chicago | John D. and Catherine MacArthur Foundation

Challenging social injustice with poignant imagery

A social documentary photographer and video artist, LaToya Ruby Frazier‘s family and hometown of Braddock, Pa., a decimated steel town near Pittsburgh, have been central to her work. She teaches photography at the School of Art Institute in Chicago and her first book, “The Notion of Family,” was published last year. In June, Frazier gave a TED Talk, “A Visual History of Inequality in Industrial America” and later in the summer participated in the Biennial of the Americas at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver. Most significantly, Frazier received a 2015 MacArthur “Genius” grant in September. She won an Infinity Award from the International Center of Photography and discussed her regard for the work of Gordon Parks for the Artist Project at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Frazier’s work is currently on view at Carré d’Art-Musée d’art contemporain, her debut solo exhibition in France, through March 13, 2016.

READ MORE Photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier Among 2015 MacArthur Fellows

theaster gates - dorchester
Still from “Theaster Gates: Dorchester Projects” by Smart Museum of Art.

Transforming communities, redefining the practice of art

On Oct. 3, Theaster Gates opened the Stony Island Arts Bank on the first day of the Chicago Architecture Biennial. He paid $1 for the abandoned city landmark and transformed the 17,000 square foot building into a cultural arts center. The achievement defined another productive year for Chicago-based Gates, who describes his innovative and expansive practice as including “space development, object making, performance and critical engagement with many publics.” The founder of the Rebuild Foundation, he is a visual art professor at the University of Chicago where he is the director of Arts and Public Life. In February, he received wide recognition when he was awarded the biennial Artes Mundi 6, the UK’s top prize for international contemporary art. Gates gave a TED Talk this year about reviving neighborhoods with “imagination, beauty and art.” In July, concerned about the future sustainability of the DuSable Museum of African American History, he made a controversial suggestion that the University of Chicago oversee the museum’s programming. (Gates sits on board of the DuSable. The proposal was not received well by the community.) Under the new leadership of Melissa Chiu, he engaged with the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., this year on a number of different levels. In March, he participated in a Meet the Artist conversation with pianist and composer Jason Moran about their collaboration, “Looks of a Lot,” a live performance commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; He joined the museum’s board in September; and Gates gave a live performance at the Smithsonian Institution’s 40th anniversary fundraising gala in New York on Nov. 9. He made Art Reviews 2015 Power 100 list, ranking No. 30 for doing “more outside the gallery than within” and in September, he published his first monograph, “Theaster Gates.”

READ MORE Theaster Gates Gave a TED Talk About Reviving Communities with Cultural Development

PAMM Director Franklin Sirmans at Pérez Art Museum Miami | Photo by Angel Valentin Courtesy Pérez Art Museum Miami

Blazing trails in contemporary art institutions

Curator Franklin Sirmans served as head of contemporary art at the Menil Collection in Houston and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), most recently, before being appointed director of the Perez Art Museum in Miami (PAMM) in September. Sirmans was artistic director of Prospect.3, the three-month citywide exhibition in New Orleans that concluded in January. At LACMA, he organized “Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada,” the first monographic museum exhibition of the late assemblage artist, social worker, and co-founder of the Watts Towers Arts Center. This year, Sirmans published a catalog coinciding with the Purifoy exhibition, and contributed to “Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks” and “McArthur Binion: Re:Mine,” the Chicago artist’s first monograph. Sirmans joined the board of Artadia in July.

READ MORE Culture Talk: Franklin Sirmans on Leading the Pérez Art Museum in Miami CT

Do you enjoy and value Culture Type? Please consider supporting its ongoing production by making a donation. Culture Type is an independent editorial project that requires countless hours and expense to research, report, write, and produce. To help sustain it, make a one-time donation or sign up for a recurring monthly contribution. It only takes a minute. Many Thanks for Your Support.