2017's Breakout Artists Brought Marginalized Identity to the Fore

Working with in a vast array of mediums—including hundreds of FBI files and 200 gallons of urine—these artists emphasized that the personal is political.
December 21, 2017, 7:48pm
Between the Margins, 2017. By Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

This year we saw the US government instate a “Muslim ban,” let white supremacist movements publicly rise, and repeal the rules that allowed trans kids to use their bathroom of choice. Throughout, artists helped us make sense of these attacks on already marginalized communities. The six artists below, in particular, offered up some of 2017’s most memorable reflections on the ways that identity functions within our social frameworks, reminding us that the personal is always political.

Toyin Ojih Odutola

Born in Ife, Nigeria and raised in Alabama, artist Toyin Ojih Odutola’s work often toys with the assumptions tied to one's skin color, drawing from her personal experience assimilating to American culture. Her current, acclaimed solo show at the Whitney Museum in New York City (until February 25), Toyin Ojih Odutola: To Wander Determined, is an elegant series of portraits chronicling the lives of two fictional Nigerian aristocratic families, the UmuEze Amara clan and the house of Obafemi. Using charcoal, pastel, and pencil to create stunning life-size images with a silky texture, she renders her characters in utmost luxury and poise, subtly critiquing Americans’ ignorance of other cultures and assumptions about race and class.

Years Later - Her Scarf, 2017. By Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Tony Gum

Cape Town artist Tony Gum’s latest series, Ode to She, includes a self portrait in which she sits with her bare chest covered in body clay and her hair in braids and holds a silver iPhone in front of her face; in the background, a collaged scene of a hut sitting amid tall grass, below a dramatic sky. Another portrait in the series shows her as an old woman wearing a large head wrap and holding a cup of espresso, the accompanying espresso machine on her lap. From a striking perspective of contemporary globalization, the series draws on Gum’s her Xhosa heritage, and the culture's coming-of-age tradition, intonjane, which assigns rituals to milestone moments in a woman’s life, starting from her first period. At only 22 years old, Gum has been a consistently rising star for a few years, and this year won the 2017 Miami Beach Pulse Prize for Ode to She at the Pulse Art Fair during Art Basel.

via @tony_gum on Instagram

Baseera Khan

At the entrance to New York artist Baseera Khan’s solo show, Iamuslima, at Participant Inc. gallery in New York in March, a pair of black Nikes sat on a pedestal. Stitched on the back was the word “Muslima,” and on the straps, “iamuslim”— an intentionally misspelled middle finger to Nike for putting “Muslim” and “Islam” on its list of words banned from its customization service, Nike ID. (That has since been changed.) Inside, five black and white prints of Khan’s personal interpretations of the five pillars of Islam hung on the walls, while self-designed prayer rugs laid on the floor facing north east. The 15-foot climbing wall at the back of the room was perhaps most striking, though. Each "hold" was an amorphous piece of resin cast against the curves of Khans body and embellished with gold chains and black hair. In a performance for the exhibition, Khan climbed the wall for an audience, using long braids of hair as ropes to support her. During the year that Trump’s Muslim ban actually became a reality, Khan’s work was a timely yet deeply thoughtful challenge to notions of contemporary Muslim feminine identity.

Baseera Khan's Braidrage. Courtesy Participant Inc.

Sadie Barnette

For years, the FBI secretly surveilled Rodney Barnette, a former Black Panther who co-founded the Compton, California chapter of the grassroots black liberation party in 1968. But it wasn’t until decades later that, through the Freedom of Information Act, he received the 500 pages of notes that confirmed his long-held suspicion that he was being watched. In 2016, his daughter, artist Sadie Barnette, turned those files into an installation that showed their sheer scope and forced viewers to reflect on the ongoing surveillance and suppression of black activism. This past April, Barnette expanded the piece for her first solo museum exhibition, Dear 1968… at the Manetti Shrem Museum of Art in Davis, California. And this fall, she followed up with Compland, an exhibition of multimedia works that attempted to create a hybrid black cultural space between Compton and her native Oakland—one that Beyoncé and Jay-Z felt was worth a visit.

Sadie Barnette in her studio. Photo by Sarah Burke.

Juan Jose Barboza-Gubo and Andrew Mroczek

Peruvian artist Juan Jose Barboza-Gubo and American artist Andrew Mroczek’s current (through January 15) collaborative exhibition at The Museum of Sex in New York City, Canon, is a call to action both rattling and awe-inspiring—highlighting the issue of state-violence against the LGBTQ population in Peru by depicting them as symbols of grace. The show expands on Virgenes de la Puerta (Virgins of the Door), their first collaboration; a photography series that depicts Peruvian transgender women as religious icons in the style of Spanish colonial paintings. It also includes Los Chicos (The Boys), a series documenting a growing community of openly gay men in Lima posing nude in a run-down manses, revealing the latent beauty in both the subjects and setting. With dramatic lighting and grand installations of the costumes that the artists’ subjects wore, the show feels more like an immersive installation than an exhibition of photos—transporting the viewer to a place where queer and trans bodies are worthy of worship.

" Maricielo I" by Juan Jose Barboza-Gubo and Andrew Mroczek.


On February 23—the day on which Trump repealed the Obama-implemented order that allowed trans students to use the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity—LA-based artist Cassils began peeing solely into gallon-size jugs. The performance required the artist, who is trans, to hold their bladder at times, as trans teens at school are often forced to do. After collecting 200 gallons (most of which was stored across LA in various friends’ refrigerators), the artist shipped the urine to New York City and transformed it into a sculpture, pouring it into a glass cube. The golden, glowing block became the centerpiece of Monumental, the artist’s solo show at Ronald Feldman Gallery this fall. The performance was only the most recent manifestation of the artist’s involved practice reflecting on the body as itself a kind of sculpture shaped by violence, social pressures, and personal identity.

PISSED, 2017; by Cassils. 200 gallons of urine, 18,000 grams of boric acid, acrylic Photo by Vince Ruvolo, courtesy the artist and Ronald Feldman Gallery, New York.