There has been African American art in the United States since the first Africans arrived during the time of slavery. Since art is classically a representation of the society in which it was made, this art is valued as a vital contribution to the history and arts of this country.
The earliest makers of African American art relied on skills, techniques, and designs learned in Africa, where many of them were skilled artisans. Once in the US, they used tools and supplies available here and they took their artistic inspiration from the events and circumstances surrounding their lives on this continent.
The earliest African American art was abundant with the symbols that represent all things sacred and loved to the artisan who crafted it. Many pieces convey lessons, much like fables do, while others represent historical events. Some of the earliest art forms were actually functional objects that were decorated elaborately, for both aesthetic purposes and to document the lives of the artists making them.
Beginning in the 1600s and ending after the abolition of slavery, African American art frequently included quilts, drums, ceramic pieces, and figures wrought from iron. Even after several hundred years in this country, this art retained the rich flavor of Africa since artistic skills were most often passed along person to person instead of being mastered in formal classes.
Most of the enslaved artisans relied on raw talent and lessons passed along to them but a few makers of African American art during these early years were fortunate enough to live in the presence of white families who valued their skills and talents enough to provide them with private tutors who could help them advance their talents. Many of the white families who did this were active in the movement to abolish slavery.
In some cases, African American art was the means of buying freedom. Slave owners frequently allowed their skilled artisans to work for hire during their free time and, in many cases, the artisan was allowed to keep the money earned with his or her artwork. Over time, it was sometimes possible to earn enough money to buy one’s own freedom and, eventually, that of their family.