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Two Detroit artists on how they use painting, photography to capture complexity of black life

The fine art world has not always been friendly to African American artists. But that’s starting to change, and black artists are now more visible than they’ve ever been. That includes prominent artists of the past, like Harlem Renaissance painters Jacob Lawrence and Norman Lewis, as well as more contemporary figures.

In 2017, a 1982 painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat sold at auction for more than $110 million. The presidential portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama, painted by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald respectively, put an international spotlight on contemporary black portraiture when they were unveiled in 2018.

Two women and a man sitting at a table with microphones
Artists Sydney James (L) and Justin Milhouse (center) talk to Stateside host April Baer (R) in the Kresge Court at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

We talked to two artists living and working in Detroit to talk about the role portraiture plays in representing the experience of black Americans. Sydney Jamesis a fine artist and muralist. Her work can be seen around Detroit, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and elsewhere. Justin Milhouse is a photographer and filmmaker with a full commercial and sports portfolio, in addition to his art photos.

You can find examples of James’ and Milhouse’s work, as well as excerpts from our conversation, in the slideshow above.

Support for arts and culture coverage is supported in part by an award from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.

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