top of page

Theme     Self & Others

The following is an excerpt from an essay in Teaching Contemporary Art with Young People by Jorge Lucero.

Contemporary art that deals with relationships presents one of our core human necessities as its main material. Our desire to understand others and be understood by them - plus our willingness to knot our stories to others’ stories - is used by artists who focus on relationships to give their work a larger-than-life quality and reach. 

Tania Bruguera

Screen Shot 2021-06-16 at 12.49.09

Tania Bruguera
Immigrant Movement International.

In collaboration with the Queens Museum of Art, Bruguera opened up a storefront so that members of the community could have a gathering space to enact artistic and activist projects.


Very quickly after the center’s start, though—and ever since—the community members took over, offering classes in everything from fitness to citizenship; holding festivals featuring traditional foods, folkloric performances, and informational speeches about the center’s programming; and using the space to conduct support groups that would strengthen not only the relationships within the various immigrant communities themselves but also the relationships between the immigrant communities and nonimmigrant communities.


This last aspect uses the project’s “officialness” to amplify the voices of those who may have previously stayed in the shadows. Being designated merely as the “initiator,” Bruguera recedes so far into the background of the artwork that it becomes less important to determine who started what and more important to see the real effects that projects like this have on the hundreds of stakeholders who take part in their programming, construction, and products.


Lisa Jarrett and Harrell Fletcher: King School Museum of Contemporary Art

King School Museum of Contemporary Art (

The King School Museum of Contemporary Art 

A contemporary art museum, the King School Museum of Contemporary Art (KSMoCA, 2014–present), is housed in an elementary school in Portland, Oregon. The school, alongside artists Lisa Jarrett and Harrell Fletcher’s students, invited contemporary artists from all over the world to put on exhibitions, lectures, art fairs, workshops, a podcast, and other occurrences that one would find in major museums the world over. 

Through KSMoCA, the school community becomes more literate about the institution known as the “artworld,” and the artists, professors, and college students become more literate about King School’s educational and cultural dynamics. By mutually sharing the space and its objectives, the participants of KSMoCA simultaneously ask “What can art be if it is school?” and “What can school be if it is art?”

Nicole Marroquin

Nicole Marroquin Harrison High School St

Nicole Marroquin is a Chicago artist and educator whose collaborative work using archives blurs the lines between studying and activating found knowledge to empower and mobilize people today. After finding sparse materials about school uprisings on the southwest side of Chicago, Marroquin collected first-hand accounts; enacted walking tours of sites where significant events occurred; and collaborated with other artists, teens, and teachers—plus made objects, installations, and prints—in order to showcase her findings, but also to galvanize a potentially passive populace into action. 

Nicole Marroquin
Harrison High School Student Uprising 1968 

Pedro Reyes and United Nations (pUN)

Pedro Reyes People's United Nations (pUN

People’s United Nations (pUN)

People’s United Nations (pUN) is an event enacted by Mexican artist Pedro Reyes. Reyes uses the form of a world peace summit in order to bring people together around conversations that perhaps an actual international summit—attended by delegates from each country—may never take up.


By combining the absurdist modes and humorous permissions of art with the seriousness and utopian aspirations of a world summit, the participants of the People’s United Nations are able to be more playful with their topics of conversation and consequently delve into areas of discussion which may seem “off-topic” in a more sanctioned event. By releasing his participants from the pressure of having to solve actual world problems through tried and true modes, Reyes affords his participants the opportunity to propose utopian solutions that don’t seem that far off, especially if they’re acted on by everyone as opposed to just diplomats and elected officials. 

The pUN is simultaneously an installation (with some fixed qualities) and a public commons (ready to host whatever qualities its participants bring to it). 

Further Consideration of Self and Others

The theme of ‘Self and Others’ also resides in many other art forms that explore personal identity in relationship to others. 

Pictorial storytelling in African American art is one genre in which relationships—family, ancestry, friendship and community--connect with personal identity to build a sense of belonging. The glue that bonds is the shared story. The tradition of storytelling has roots in the art of the Harlem Renaissance, which in turn descended from African American story quilts--colorful, symbolic, narrative textiles that kept people warm and told their stories. 

Storytelling painters of the Harlem Renaissance to look at are: Jacob Lawrence, Aaron Douglas, Horace Pippin, William Johnson and Romare Bearden. When you peruse the art of these masters, notice the patterning, the color and the dynamic angles in the works. Many resemble the patchwork shapes in old quilts.

Today we have a new dynamic wave of African and African-American storytelling artists, which critics call the “Black Renaissance”. Common threads among these artists is storytelling about Black life, history and community, attention to (and disruption of) Western art forms and tropes, collage and evocative use of bright colors, symbolic patterns and imagery.

Contemporary Artists to Consider

Kerry James Marshall is perhaps the most celebrated Black artist today. His large-scale paintings, which hark back to the Western ‘great paintings’ traditions, depict Black life today—from hair salons and barbershops, to living rooms decked with mementos, to children playing among picket fences. Colorful, layered and full of rich detailed patterns, Marshall’s complex paintings explore Black life after the civil rights movement and draw the viewer into the way things are today.       

Kerry James Marshall
De Style

Kerry James Marshall

Bisa Butler

Quilts are Bisa Butler’s medium. Each quilt presents a detailed, dynamic, highly colorful portrait of people (individuals and groups) done completely in fabric and thread.  Butler’s subjects are often historical figures such as Frederick Douglas and Marcus Garvey. Through her portraits she resurrects these figures to build an ancestral narrative that bolsters Black identity and community today. Her copious research into her subjects is apparent in the specific symbols she sews into their patterned clothing. The effect is to make African American historical figures come alive. Butler also looks at life today. When she portrays contemporary people, her depictions convey the exuberance of youth, the comradery in teams, friendships and families, and the quiet dignity of the individual. Behind each grouping and individual is a story; around each subject is their world of human relationships, history and traditions. 

Bisa Butler Southside Sunday Morning 2018

Toyin Ojih Odutola

Odultola writes and draws fictional narratives that challenge the Eurocentric bent of Western art, while challenging racial stereotypes. Her opulent, colorful and dynamic portraits draw from (and disrupt) the tropes of Western art history to tell a story about two imagined affluent African families. Each exhibit continues the story with each portrait of a family member or group exploring notions of identity, heritage and family dynamics.   
02-toyin-ojih-odutola-vogue-august-2018 (1).jpg
4ToyinOdutola (1).jpg

Toyin Ojih Odutola

Other artists to look up:

Njideka Akunyili Crosby
Jordan Casteel
Mequitta Ahuya

Find great Black women artists at:

Who Are the Biggest Contemporary Black Artists?
bottom of page