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Use our guide to explore 10 works by Black artists on view in our galleries.

We’ve also included 10 related works you can find nearby, in case you have more time during your next visit. Looking to learn even more? Join a gallery talk, offered on select Fridays and Sundays in February. Take this guide with you through the galleries. You will need a map. Pick one up at any information desk or use our app. Start in the West Building or East Building.

Estimated time for the tour: 40 minutes


West Building

See works by two of the earliest professional African American artists. And discover art of the Chicago Black Renaissance and Harlem Renaissance.

Richmond Barthé, Head of a Boy

This free-standing, bronze-colored sculpture shows the head, neck, and the center of the collarbone of a young, bald boy. In this photograph, the boy faces us with his chin slightly lowered. He looks out from under a projecting brow. He has a flaring nose and his full lips are closed. The hollow of his throat is deep, and light glints off the tendons to each side. His chest is cropped to either side of his neck to create a trapezoidal shape just below his collarbone. The sculpture sits on a thin wooden base. The background is fog gray.
Richmond Barthé, Head of a Boy, c. 1930, painted plaster, 2014.136.295

This bust may look like bronze, but it’s actually painted plaster. Barthé made the humble material look refined and timeless.

The artist aimed to show the beauty of Black subjects through his sculpture. He modeled this bust after Julius Perkins, Jr., a young actor and musician in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood. At the time, this was the center of a Black cultural movement now known as the Harlem Renaissance.

Ground Floor, Gallery 15

Archibald John Motley Jr., Portrait of My Grandmother

Shown from the knees up, a woman with brown, wrinkled skin, wearing a white blouse, apron, and black skirt is shown in front of a pale gray background in this vertical portrait painting. Straight-backed, she faces and looks at us with her hands resting in her lap. Her wavy, iron-gray hair is parted in the center and pulled back from her face. Her eyebrows are slightly raised, and her face is deeply lined down her cheeks and around her mouth. She wears a heart-shaped brooch with a red stone at its center at her neck and a gold band on her left ring finger. The light coming from our left casts a shadow against the wall to our right. The artist signed and dated the painting in the lower right corner: “A.J. MOTLEY. JR. 1922.”
Archibald John Motley Jr., Portrait of My Grandmother, 1922, oil on canvas, 2018.2.1

You can see Motley’s love and respect for his 80-year-old grandmother, Emily Sims Motley, in the details of this work. He took special care painting her face and hands.

Motley made this portrait while living on the South Side of Chicago with his parents, sister, and grandmother. At the end of each day, he carried his grandmother up the stairs to the top floor, shared by her bedroom and his studio. The artist would later become a central figure of the Chicago Black Renaissance.

Main Floor, Gallery 66

More artists nearby: Joshua Johnson

Edward Mitchell Bannister, Palmer River

Edward Mitchell Bannister, Palmer River, 1885, oil on canvas, 2021.11.1

Take in the details of Bannister’s painting. Wildflowers sprinkle the shoreline. Low-hanging clouds reflect in the calm waters of the river.

Bannister first made his living as a barber after being denied access to formal artistic training because of his race. Early portrait commissions from prominent members of Boston’s Black community launched his career. He was deeply involved in antislavery activities during the Civil War. Afterward, he moved to Providence, Rhode Island, and turned his attention to landscape painting.

Main Floor, Gallery 68

Robert Seldon Duncanson, Still Life with Fruit and Nuts

Several pieces of fruit, a bunch of green grapes, a stem of raisins, and several types of nuts in their shells are piled on a putty-brown tabletop or ledge with rounded corners against a dark background in this horizontal still life painting. The food is brightly lit from the front, and we look slightly down onto the table. There are two round red apples and two pieces of small yellow fruit, perhaps quinces, flanking a golden yellow pear at the back center. The bunch of grapes drapes over the fruit to our right and the raisins lie between the apples. Thirteen walnuts, peanuts, almonds, hazelnuts, and perhaps a brazil nut are scattered in a loose band in front of the fruit. The surface on which the still life sits becomes swallowed in shadow behind the fruit, and blends into the dark brown background. The artist signed and dated the work in dark paint in the lower right corner, almost lost in shadow under the ledge: “R.S. Duncanson 1848.”
Robert Seldon Duncanson, Still Life with Fruit and Nuts, 1848, oil on board, 2011.98.1

Notice how Duncanson painted the different textures here, from the smooth skin of the apple to the shriveled grapes

This painting comes from a small group of still lifes the artist made early in his career while living in Cincinnati, Ohio. But Duncanson was mostly celebrated for pastoral landscapes that often carried a religious or moral message. He was one of the first African American artists to become popular abroad.

Main Floor, Gallery 69A

East Building

See art by two of DC’s most important painters as well as imaginative works by some of today’s leading sculptors.

Simone Leigh, Sentinel

Simone Leigh, Sentinel, 2022, bronze, Gift of the Glenstone Foundation, 2023.25.1

Sentinel’s form refers to izinkhezo, carved ceremonial spoons of the southern African Zulu people. These spoons represent feminine beauty and allude to women’s labor.

The figure’s vessel-like, faceless head also resembles many of Leigh’s other sculptures. The lack of a face works on two levels. It’s a reference to the anonymity and obscurity Black women have faced throughout history. At the same time, it shows Black women protecting and preserving themselves by withholding their selves.

Much of Leigh’s work confronts assumptions about women’s bodies, race, beauty, and community. 

Ground Floor, Atrium

Read more about Leigh's sculptures

Lois Mailou Jones, Indian Shops, Gay Head, Massachusetts

Lois Mailou Jones, Indian Shops, Gay Head, Massachusetts, 1940, oil on canvas, 2015.19.212

Although Jones traveled widely, she returned to her family’s home on Martha’s Vineyard every summer. The sun and water there had originally inspired to her to paint.

This idyllic seaside scene won a prize for landscape painting at the 1941 Corcoran Gallery of Art Exhibition. But Jones had to have her white friend Céline Tabary submit the work because at the time the Corcoran did not accept works from African American artists.  
Jones served on the art faculty at Howard University for 50 years. She also convened the Little Paris Group in Washington, DC, a salon where fellow artists like Alma Thomas came to paint live models and have their work critiqued. 

Ground Floor, Gallery 106C

Uncover the hidden stories behind this painting

More artists nearby: Hughie Lee-Smith, Hale Woodruff, Edward Loper, James Amos Porter

Chakaia Booker, Egress

Chakaia Booker, Egress, c. 2000, rubber tires, 2022.82.1

Can you tell what this work is made from? Look at the different textures of the fused, spiraling pieces. Booker made her plant-like sculpture out of the material she most often works with: recycled rubber tires.

Booker makes meaning of the tires’ different elements. Their variety of tones mirrors human diversity. Their treads evoke African scarification and textile designs. 


More artists nearby: Theaster Gates, Martin Puryear

Thornton Dial, Testing Chair (Remembering Bessie Harvey)

Thornton Dial, Testing Chair (Remembering Bessie Harvey), 1995, roots, metal, corrugated tin, wire, enamel, spray paint, and Splash Zone compound, 2020.28.12

Thornton Dial dedicated this silvery throne to sculptor Bessie Harvey a year after she died. Dial wrapped a chair using both manufactured items and scraggly branches that echoed the natural materials Harvey worked with.

 “My art,” Dial has said, “is talking about the power. I try to show how [Black people] . . . came to help make the power of the US what it is today. My art is the evidence of my freedom.”

Upper Level, Gallery 407B

More artists nearby: Norman Lewis, Marion Perkins

Alma Thomas, Pansies in Washington

This nearly square, abstract painting is filled with circles within circles, like nested rings, each of a single bright color against the ivory white of the canvas. Each ring is made up of a series of short, rectangular dashes, and some bands are narrower while others are a bit wider. The majority of the rings are crimson and brick red, and they are interspersed with bands of lapis blue, army green, and pale pink. One of two pumpkin-orange bands is the smallest, innermost ring at the center. There is one aqua-blue colored ring just inside a pale, shell-white ring, which is the first to get cropped by the edges of the canvas. A few red, green, and blue rings beyond the white band are only seen at the corners of the canvas.
Alma Thomas, Pansies in Washington, 1969, acrylic on canvas, 2015.19.144

Our tour wouldn’t be complete without seeing a radiant work by DC’s own Alma Thomas. The abstract painter created the kaleidoscopic effect you see here using short dabs of color in organized patterns. An avid gardener, Thomas was deeply inspired by flowers. 

 “Through color I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness, rather than on man’s inhumanity to man,” Thomas said.

Upper Level, Gallery 407C

More artists nearby: Sam Gilliam

Faith Ringgold, The American People Series #18: The Flag is Bleeding

Faith Ringgold, The American People Series #18: The Flag is Bleeding, 1967, oil on canvas, 2021.28.1

American flags appear in many of Ringgold’s works. “The flag is the only truly subversive and revolutionary abstraction one can paint,” she has said. Partially visible behind this flag’s stars, a Black man holds a knife in one hand and covers his bleeding heart with the other. It is up to us to interpret the relationship between these three figures.

Faith Ringgold has been creating art that addresses race, gender, and power in American culture for some 60 years. This painting comes from her first major series of political works, made in the 1960s.

Upper Level, Gallery 407D

Discover more

January 19, 2024