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‘I see art as the only hope we have left. I don’t see it in religion or politics. If we as artists can’t take advantage of it, who can?’

Black artist Jack Whitten
The artist

Jack Whitten was born in 1939 in Bessemer, Alabama, in the deep South of United States where the discrimination of white people against black people was very strong. Whitten was a painter and sculptor who in his long and successful career, discussed important and social arguments such as racism. He believed in Martin Luther King’s speeches, in his message and in his dream.

Whitten took a lot of inspiration from this vision of changing America, where also black people would be considered as respectful and fully owners of their rights as citizens. When the painter understood that living in the South would have meant see a lot of violence acts, bad actions or many discriminations against Afroamerican people, decided to move to New York where he worked as an artist and where he spent all his life until his death in 2018.

Whitten’s works are inspired by the difficult situations black people had to live due to the colour of their skin. The artist wanted to give us an idea of his emotions: the frustration, diversity, inequality, unfortunately the mirror of the society he lived in.

“I work with things that I cannot see”

Black artist Jack Whitten's abstract painting
Jack Whitten. Zen Master. 1968. The Joyner/Giuffrida Collection

Jack Whitten’s work is based on concepts, on ABSTRACT art. In his career he experimented new techniques with colors, he mixed different shades to obtain new shapes.

Black artist Jack Whitten's painting of a black monolith

Some of his paintings can be considered as “dark” because of the majority of dark colours instead of bright ones, such as in his work “Black Monolith, VII Du Bois Legacy: For W.E. Burghardt” which is one of his painting dedicated to Afroamerican who made the difference in the U.S.A.

In his career, Jack Whitten dedicated a lot of paintings to those black men who tried to make the difference, who tried to build a better world for the future generations.

Black artist Jack Whitten's painting of a black monolith
Black Monolith II: Homage to Ralph Ellison The Invisible Man

“Black Monolith II: Homage to Ralph Ellison The Invisible Man” honors Ralph Ellison who was an Afroamerican writer, author of the novel “The Invisible Man”. It tells the story of a black man who lives in the U.S. and that is considered as nothing, as useless, as invisible by the society, someone who is constantly searching his “role” in a “blind” world.

Black artist Jack Whitten's abstract artwork
Flickr Jack Whitten, Vibrations for Milt "Bags" Jackson, 1999,

“Vibrations for Milt “Bags” Jackson”, is dedicated to the Afroamerican composer Milt Jackson who was a genius of music and one of the better vibraphonist of the all times. A man in whom Whitten strongly believed was Martin Luther King. Different painter’s works are dedicated to the black politician who hardly fought for Afroamerican rights.

Black artist Jack Whitten's abstract painting
The demonstration of freedom

This is “Demonstration of Freedom”. There are many bright colors but also some brushstrokes. In my opinion, black represents the struggle black people were fighting, a complicated one, because of the big presence of other colours that represent the society, the white oppression.

Another one is “Martin Luther King’s Garden”: a painting full of colours that wants to transmit joy, one of MLK’s quality, but at the same time something confused as the “Civil Rights Era” has been.

Black artist Jack Whitten's colorful painting
Martin Luther King’s Garden

Whitten in his commemoration works, has remembered also the activist Malcom X, the boxer Muhammad Ali and the former president of the United States, Barack Obama who has been the first black president who gave the strength to black people to believe in their rights and to fight for them.

Black artist Jack Whitten's artwork to commemorate malcom x
Homage to Malcom, 1970

“Homage to Malcom, 1970”. About this painting, that Whitten realized right after Malcom X’s death, said: “That painting had to be dark. It had to be moody. It had to be deep. It had to give you that feeling of going deep down into something and in doing that I was able to capture the essence of what Malcolm was about.”

Black artist Jack Whitten's painting of a mobile homescreen
Apps for Obama

“Apps for Obama”. The painter said: “My ‘Apps for Obama’ is a bright and cheerful painting that nonetheless features the debris of our age as attractive on a digital screen: an interface that fluctuates between imaging and materiality, but above all else is paint.”

“Black Monolith X, Birth of Muhammad Ali, 2016”. In this painting is like Whitten wanted to represented the greatness of one of the most famous boxer of the history.

Black artist Jack Whitten's painting of a black monolith
Black Monolith X, Birth of Muhammad Ali, 2016

“I am black, 46 years old, angry, tired of teaching, tired of being poor. […] What am I to do?” – Jack Whitten

Article by

Sara Orlandini


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