How the Black Artist Fund Is Championing Fabulous Up-and-Coming Creatives 

If there is one thing that Darryl Westly values above all else, it’s a sense of community. “Exchanging ideas and feeling part of a community is about creating a platform of trust,” says the Chicago-born, Brooklyn-based artist.

In addition to being a painter, Westly works as an independent curator, art adviser and board member of the Black Artist Fund, a fundraising initiative that supports Black artists with grants, championing cultural equity and inclusivity and amplifying the voices of established and emerging Black artists of all ages.

“For many people, especially within America, the idea of pursuing an artistic vision can feel impossible,” Westly says. “Providing aid to African Americans shouldn’t just be restricted to those outliers deemed worthy of the title of ‘Black excellence’ or those living under the most extreme of circumstances, but should be offered to each and every artist with the courage, ambition and perseverance to make their dreams a reality.”

Painter, curator and Black Artist Fund (BAF) board member Darryl Westly in a portrait by BAF awardee Kendall Bessent. Top (clockwise from top left): Tying Loose Ends, 2020, by Sydney Vernon; Compost from Weeks Ago, 2021, by Brandon Ndife; Odalisque 1, 2022, by Westly; and Hollow Man with Rubber Boots, 2017, by Andrew Ross. All the artists (except Westly) have received grants from the BAF.

This February, 1stDibs has partnered with the Black Artist Fund to create our Black History Month collection of artworks from pre-eminent and emerging artists and photographers. In addition to our curatorial partnership and support of the Black Artist Fund throughout the month, several of the fund’s awardees have been offered subscription-free 1stDibs storefronts for one year.

Westly’s own art invites viewers to question so-called established truths about topics as diverse as ethnicity, politics and personal development. His large-scale oil paintings are often inspired by photographs of fleeting moments. Some are quiet and contemplative, depicting friends in domestic settings, while others are more socially charged and snatched from media sources, such as a freeze-frame taken during the January 6 U.S. Capitol riots last year (Axon Body 3, 2021.6.1) or a photo capturing the moment George Floyd was pulled from his vehicle by police officer Derek Chauvin (Axon Body 3 2020.5.25).

(Axon Body 3 2020.5.25), 2021, by Darryl Westly
(Axon Body 3 2020.5.25), 2021, by Westly

But these are not works of social realism. Perspectives are skewed, shapes are superimposed, and hyperreal elements are paired with abstract forms and blank spaces. Westly’s vibrant and fragmented aesthetic draws from the memetic nature of the Internet and social media. It is for us, the viewers, to peel back the layers of each story and place ourselves within his visions, which he describes as “translations.”

“Different colors and techniques in my art reflect the way our concerns are cut, shaped and tuned,” he explains.

 According to Westly, the Black Artists Fund is a practical channel toward a more united and engaged front: “The BAF doesn’t restrict applicants and award recipients by age, sex, income or merit. We strongly encourage those who apply to do so by starting with a practical mindset.”

Artist-recipient Kayode Ojo appreciates this approach. “I was impressed by Darryl’s ability to generate funds without requiring me to validate or explain myself,” Ojo says, “which sets the BAF apart from other institutions.”

Grantees of the fund have been joining together to launch offshoot projects, like the FUBU group (named after the 1990s streetwear label For Us By Us), which includes male-identifying Black artists Ojo, Andrew Ross, Devin Kevin, Monsieur Zohore, Chase Hall, Marvin Toure, K.O. Nnamdie and Hugh Hayden.

Cofounded by Ojo and Westly, the FUBU collective takes part in weekly digital artist talks and lectures that Westly describes as “a symposium for investigating contemporary questions of identity, practice, art and community.”

Jordan & Taiwo, 2020, by Kendall Bessent
Jordan & Taiwo, 2020, by Kendall Bessent

It’s clear that the driving force behind Westly’s creative output is the belief that art has the ability to debunk dogmatic conceptions of culture, identity and status. “We are experiencing much of our lives through the Internet. But when we stop and consider the true implication of that moment, we may think differently,” he says

Here, we take a look at seven exceptional New York–area artists from a growing list of Black Artist Fund grantees who are using their own personal experiences and creative verve to craft visual poetry in genres as diverse as filmmaking, fashion photography, sculpture and public billboards.


Self Portrait, 2022, by Kendall Bessent

Just 22, Kendall Bessent has already made his mark on the art world as an innovative and evocative storyteller with intimate photographs that celebrate Black beauty and Black culture. 

This year, the fine-art photographer and creative director was named one of Forbes 30 under 30 bright stars. “I remember the day that I found out — I was speechless. I knew that all the work that I’ve been doing and all the sacrifices that I had previously made were paying off,” says the Atlanta-born, Brooklyn-based Bessent, who has worked on commissioned projects for the likes of the New York Times, Netflix, Google, Elle and I-D magazine and who shot many of the portraits in this article, including his own.

Uncontrived yet beautifully cinematic, his portraits shine a light on the magic of ordinary moments. They speak of shared experiences as well as individual dreams and ambitions. ”I’m in the space now where I’m no longer interested in creating fantasy or fairy tales with my work,” he explains. “I’m focused on showcasing the authenticity and beauty of my community and culture.” 


Joanne Petit Frere working with a model, in 2012. Photo by Delphine Diaw Diallo
Joanne Petit-Frère working with a model in 2012. Photo by Delphine Diaw Diallo

Joanne Petit-Frère is best known for her intricate and arresting hair-braided sculptures. At once majestic, ornamental and mask-like, each of these textural and intricately handwoven works is a tapestry of thoughts and memories.

The Queens-based artist draws from a deep pool of influences, including her Haitian roots, architecture, the natural world and mathematics, as well as ideas surrounding beauty rituals in the African Diaspora, spiritual alignment, female empowerment and social mobility. She describes her art as “sequential and the braiding together of harmonious, disparate and even opposing elements.” 

An alumnus of the Fashion Institute of Technology New York who also works with photography and film, Petit-Frère has had work exhibited at New York’s MoMA PS1; the California African American Museum, in Los Angeles; the Cooper Gallery, at Harvard University; and most recently, at Oklahoma’s Philbrook Museum of Art.

Her braided sculptures have appeared in the pages of Vogue, the New Yorker and AnOther Magazine and been worn by such notable figures as Beyoncé and Solange Knowles and Janelle Monáe.


Portrait of Andrew Ross by Kendall Bessent
Sculptor Andrew Ross

“I like to think of sculpture as a site for an event, or as the aftermath of action,” says Andrew Ross, referring to his eclectic three-dimensional pieces combining casts of body parts, mass-produced objects and organic shapes crafted from media such as clay, wood and Styrofoam.

Far from familiar, these anatomical and architectural assemblages appear to be in a state of transmogrification, as if caught between fiction and reality. “I think of a lot of my figures as caricatures. As such, I acknowledge their limitations in representing groups or archetypes by showing them in a state of deconstruction,” Ross explains.

Born in 1989 in Miami and now based in Brooklyn, Ross has been widely exhibited both in the U.S. and across Europe. His fourth solo show recently took place at the New York gallery False Flag, founded in 2017 “to support artists willing to take a risk,” as the gallery puts it. 


Portrait of Sydney Vernon by Kendall Bessent
Painter Sydney Vernon in her studio

A recent graduate of The Cooper Union, in New York City, Sydney Vernon uses her own experiences and family memories to convey a prismatic perspective on Black culture, where history, ancestry, identity and community collide to challenge the Western portrait tradition.

Vernon often uses a combination of paint, pastels, collage and screen-printing to create her contemplative paintings, which infuse everyday moments with an air of gravitas and intrigue. Her talent for using autobiographical elements to unlock wider narratives has garnered much attention: Last year, she had her first solo show, at New York’s Thierry Goldberg Gallery, and she was announced as a winner of the #Your2020Portrait contest, a collaboration between the Brooklyn Museum and Instagram.

Sydney Vernon My Fair Lady, 2020
My Fair Lady, 2020

“In many ways, I find it difficult to express what it’s like to be a complex person with the capacity to grow and change,” she says. “So, with my work, I want people to understand how everything I do is connected to living as a Black woman, living in the Internet age, living in the wake of slavery and living in culture while simultaneously trying to create it.”


Brandon Ndife with his sculptures. Photo by Tim Schutsky

Furniture and found objects take on new life in the hands of Jersey City–based artist Brandon Ndife. Tables, chairs, drawers are in a state of mutation, surrounded by earthy-looking excrescences handcrafted from painted resin and foam.

It’s hard to know if they are evolving or decomposing, but this very ambiguity is what matters, since it raises questions about home and displacement, rootedness and uprootedness.

Ndife, who was previously a painter, uses organic-looking forms to evoke a sense of vulnerability and chaos, literally “invading” the safe and familiar constructs of home to highlight how we are often at the mercy of forces beyond our control — a particularly poignant point now, in light of the pandemic. Drawing a parallel between the natural world and the current sociopolitical landscape, he uses this theme to spotlight the disruptive forces of racial inequality. 


Portrait of Ashley Teamer by Amartya De
Portrait of Ashley Teamer by Amartya De

Ashley Teamer presents strong, sporty women in her dynamic collages, paintings and animations. The New Orleans artist, who’s currently an MFA candidate at the Yale School of Art, explores issues involving gender, power and Black femininity by ennobling women athletes in their element. Her specialty is the game-changing women basketball players who have helped to dismantle gender inequality.

“I got into basketball imagery from my love of sneakers. I made abstract paintings for years, using patterns that I saw on them,” Teamer says. “In 2014, my interest expanded to the people who imbued these sneakers with meaning: basketball players. I am always drawn to the players as they gaze upwards. The desperate reach of energy that is so full of momentum and potential power. I wanted to make work about this moment of possibility.” 

The artist mines her own experiences and family history for inspiration: Her grandmother founded the Lady Bleu Devils women’s basketball team of Dillard University. Teamer recently created a series of eight billboards, displayed throughout New Orleans, that combine photographs by Annie Flanagan with archival shots borrowed from her grandmother’s archive from the 1970s and ’80s.

With this, her first public art venture, Teamer says, “I wanted to visually elevate these female players to the level of legend by depicting them as larger-than-life beings who stretch between earth and outer space.”


Portrait of Kayode Ojo by Calla Henkel and Max Pitegoff
Portrait of Kayode Ojo by Calla Henkel and Max Pitegoff

The New York–based artist Kayode Ojo is an unconventional provocateur. His installations often incorporate music stands, glitzy fashion items, mirrors and body adornments like jewelery and wigs. The assembled sculptures have an almost anthropomorphic presence, as if they’re lingering guests from a hedonistic party that’s been and gone. But ambiguity looms large in his creative practice, which also includes portrait photography and clinical-looking readymades.

Artifice and theatrics are at work: Fashion items and gems are counterfeits, and the contrived glamour of his oeuvre is part of a parade that we all recognize and inevitably plug in to, raising questions about the complexities of self-image, ego and even, should you choose to go there, narcissism. It’s really up to you.

At the end of the day (Pasolini, Paris), 2020

“My work doesn’t believe in authenticity. Much like myself, it does whatever it wants,” he explains. “It tries to look good but really doesn’t need you. It has its own internal logic. The work is only political if the viewer wants it to be. The only message I have is that sculpture and photography are connected.”

Darryl Westly’s Quick Picks from Our Black History Month Collection

<i>Lathe Black Box</i>, by Theaster Gates, 2012, offered by Heather James Fine Art
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Lathe Black Box, by Theaster Gates, 2012, offered by Heather James Fine Art

In many ways, Lathe Black Box can be understood as both a portrait and a mirror, when one is confronted by its pristine black surface, or more specifically, it’s a monument. Gates’s work beautifully reminds us that nail, screw and floorboard have a story to tell if we are willing to listen.”

<i>Vignette (Wishing Well)</i>, 2010, by Kerry James Marshall, offered by ArtWise
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Vignette (Wishing Well), 2010, by Kerry James Marshall, offered by ArtWise

“It is difficult to not fall in love with the worlds that Kerry James Marshall creates, and Vignette (WIshing Well) is no exception. His depictions of Black subjects and landscapes can simultaneously feel fantastic and palpably real, an effect achieved through the great ease with which he empathetically translates not only African American experiences but human experiences at large in a brilliant poetic dance of color form and composition.”

<i>Proposed Project For General Hospital, Harlem, NY</i>, ca. 1992, by Sam Gilliam, offered by Quintessential Things
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Proposed Project For General Hospital, Harlem, NY, ca. 1992, by Sam Gilliam, offered by Quintessential Things

As one of the most prolific artists of the twentieth century, Sam Gilliam can be easily described as one of the foremost innovators of not just modern painting but modern art at large. Proposed Project For General Hospital, Harlem, NY speaks directly to this long-held and continuing legacy, given both its original function as a moquette for an unrealized public artwork and ensuingly as a monument of the artist’s ideals of growth and exploration.”

<i>Homage to the Panthers</i>, 1993, by Elizabeth Catlett, offered by Mojo Portfolio
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Homage to the Panthers, 1993, by Elizabeth Catlett, offered by Mojo Portfolio

“Within Homage to the Black Panthers, the masterful play between light and shadow that is synonymous with Catlett’s three-dimensional work is translated to great effect through the medium of lithography. Tasked with interpreting the leaders and symbols of the Black Panther Party, the resulting work strikes a poignant and melancholic chord that speaks to the intentions that lie behind Catlett’s work while shedding light upon a part of American and African American history that is too often left in the dark.”

Romare Bearden Aubusson tapestry, 1976, offered by Vojtech Blau
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Romare Bearden Aubusson tapestry, 1976, offered by Vojtech Blau

“Great artists are able to embrace profundity in all forms, feeling equally at ease in the formal, conceptual or decorative. Romare Bearden is one such artist. The Aubusson tapestry is a testament to the originality and versatility of Bearden’s vision that is not only beautiful in its execution but wonderfully links Bearden’s practice to historical traditions of public and social art.”

<i>Untitled (State II)</i>, 2014, by Martin Puryear, offered by Betsy Senior Fine Art
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Untitled (State II), 2014, by Martin Puryear, offered by Betsy Senior Fine Art

“In this elegant etching, Martin Puryear suggests the poetic dynamism of his three-dimensional works while giving lease to the medium to stretch forth to new ends. The delicate beauty of the chine collé paired against the slim, black line work feels both practiced and natural. If a drawing is a diary, then Untitled (State II) is a love letter.”

<i>Obama Can</i>, 2017, by Nari Ward, offered by Lehmann Maupin
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Obama Can, 2017, by Nari Ward, offered by Lehmann Maupin

Glass half full, glass half empty. Luckily for us, Nari Ward adheres to the former, his acerbic wit and empathetic eye forming the foundation of a practice that refuses to be weighed down by the nature of its critical investigations. With Obama Can, Ward’s crystalline union of wit, content and form leaves us with a laugh and a cry but also a new perspective — a hope that leaves us expectant not just for what the future will bring but for the role we each have to play in it.”

<i>Amalgam (Brown)</i>, 2015, by Nick Cave, offered by Cerbera Gallery
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Amalgam (Brown), 2015, by Nick Cave, offered by Cerbera Gallery

If a performance happens in a gallery and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? While this question might be best left to be considered in its original context, I believe that in many ways Nick Cave has been helping us all to redefine and reevaluate the boundaries of how we see and understand performance.

Amalgam (Brown) references the sculptural and performative elements of Cave’s work while simultaneously offering a new stage for his work to be contemplated through the employment of the subtle but assertive art of lithography. In (Brown), the focus lies on the pose and angle of a ‘soundsuit’ sculpture. By his removing color and highlighting areas through soft transitions of sepia, our eyes become drawn to the extremes of shadow and light — a choice that poetically suggests, yes, it does make sound, but one that can not be heard but only seen.”

<i>Hot! Wild! Unrestricted!</i>, 2009, by Mickalene Thomas, offered by Yancey Richardson Gallery
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Hot! Wild! Unrestricted!, 2009, by Mickalene Thomas, offered by Yancey Richardson Gallery

“There is an old legend that warns that a photograph can steal your soul. Were we to entertain this tale, what would we make of the world of today, where images captured by the lens of the camera are nearly (if not completely) as ubiquitous as those captured by that of the eye? Thankfully for us, the camera of Mickalene Thomas does not seek to make off with our spirits but instead reveal to us the beauty of the world that surrounds us.

In Hot! Wild! Unrestricted!, we can see the foundations of color, form and composition that inform Thomas’s paintings through the way in which she treats each of her subjects with a care and reverence historically reserved for the Madonna. In this sense, Hot! Wild! Unrestricted! can also be employed to describe the glee and excitement present within the viewer upon engaging with Thomas’s ever-inspirational creative vision.”

<i>Untitled (Black Edge with Pearl)</i>, 2013, by El Anatsui, offered by Zane Bennett Contemporary Art
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Untitled (Black Edge with Pearl), 2013, by El Anatsui, offered by Zane Bennett Contemporary Art

Within Black Edge with Pearl, El Anatsui disills the luminous reflective surfaces endemic to his ‘Bottle Cap’ works into a meditation on form and color. Rich golden yellows, deep forest greens and lush blacks at once intermesh and disentangle as they advance and recede from the matte-black background. The resulting dance of color is a delight to the eyes and in turn recalls the soft billowing movements found within Anatsui’s sculptural installations. In restricting himself to two dimensions with Pearl, El Anatsui gives each element of the work an opportunity to shine, effectively giving credence to the phrase less is more.”

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