10 Must-Read Black Art History Books

July 27, 2020

In the past two centuries, the African diaspora generated a wide array of artistic achievements. While many black artists sought to visually express the Black experience  and culture through a creative lens, others desired to be referred to simply as "artists" without a qualifying racial identifier.

As black artists continue to be underrepresented in museums and art history canons, we bring you ten black art history books to educate yourself on the subject - courtesy of art historian Alayo Akinkugbe.

Exhibiting Blackness: African Americans and the American Art Museum

In Exhibiting Blackness: African Americans and the American Art Museum, art historian Bridget R. Cooks examines the curatorial strategies, challenges, and critical receptions of the most significant museum exhibitions of African American art, while exposing the issues involved in exhibiting cultural differences that continue to challenge art history, historiography, and American museum exhibition practices. Tracing an ethnographic approach to exhibiting black artists that focuses more on artists than their art, as well as a recovery narrative aimed at correcting past omissions, she reveals the complex role of art museums and their accountability to the cultures they represent.

Energy/Experimentation: Black Artists and Abstraction 1964-1980

Energy/Experimentation: Black Artists and Abstraction 1964 - 1980 is a catalogue for exhibition held at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2006, featuring the work of fifteen Amrican black artists who pursued vibrantly modernist alternatives to the figuration of the contemporaneous Black Arts Movement, including Frank Bowling, Barbara Chase-Riboud, Ed Clark, Melvin Edwards, Sam Gilliam and Daniel LaRue Johnson. Featuring the first substantive group of black artists to enter the mainstream from art school, the exhibition sought to expand our understanding and appreciation of Late Modernism as well as the fraught intersection of politics and abstraction.

Contemporary African Art since 1980

Contemporary African Art Since 1980 explores the work of contemporary African artists from diverse situations, locations, and generations who work either in or outside of Africa, but whose practices engage and occupy the social and cultural complexities of the continent since the past 30 years. Organized in chronological order and written by the late Okwui Enwezor, the book covers all major visual arts mediums as well as aesthetic forms and genres. Among the questions the book poses are what and when is contemporary African art and who might be included in the framing of such a conceptual identity.

Reading the Contemporary: African Art from Theory to the Marketplace

Bringing together twenty key essays by major critical thinkers, scholars, and artists, Reading the Contemporary: African Art from Theory to the Marketplace offers key readings on contemporary African visual culture and arts, locating it within current cultural debates and within the context of the continent's history. Challenging the way African art in the 20th century has been written, editors Olu Oguibe and Okwui Enwezor sought to provide an alternative history to lay a groundwork for its methodology.

In/sight: African Photographers, 1940 to the Present

In/sight: African Photographers, 1940 to the Present, a truly pioneering book, brings together the work of 30 African photographers who challenge long-standing Western misconceptions about Africa, accompanied by essays by Okwui Enwezor, Octavio Zaya and Olu Oguibe. Their work covers everything from the beginnings of the continent’s struggles for independence to the postcolonial present, including studio portraiture and architectural views from the 1940s and 1950s; photojournalism from the 1950s influential South African magazine Drum; scenes of the activities of cosmopolitan youth in the 1960s and 1970s; and contemporary art that addresses more personal concerns, from issues of identity and representation of the body, to formal studies exploring the symbolism of light and darkness.

Black Artists in British Art: A History Since the 1950s

In Black Artists in British Art: A History Since the 1950s, Eddie Chambers charts the story of Britain's black artists, from the 1950s onwards, including the contemporary art of Steve McQueen, Chris Ofili and Yinka Shonibare. With backgrounds in the countries of Africa, the Caribbean, and South Asia, these black artists made significant contributions to British art history. While they are now regarded as British practitioners of note and merit, the situation was much different during the 1970s and 1980s, which forced them to make their own exhibitions or create their own gallery spaces.

How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness

In How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness, Darby English goes beyond the "blackness" of black art to examine the practices of Kara Walker, Fred Wilson, Isaac Julien, Glenn Ligon, and William Pope.L - five contemporary black artists in whose work race plays anything but a defining role. Emphasizing how the expectations of artists to "represent" the race can limit the scope of our knowledge about their body of work, the book brings to light problems and possibilities that arise when questions of artistic priority and freedom come into contact with those of cultural obligation.

Welcome to the Jungle: New Positions in Black Cultural Studies

In Welcome to the Jungle: New Positions in Black Cultural Studies, Kobena Mercer brings together ten articles written between 1985 and 1990 that take a critical look at the diversity of black cultural events, experiences and practices that marked the British context of the 1980s. Examining new forms of cultural expression in black film, photography and visual art, the author in this book interprets this prolific creativity within a sociological framework that reveals fresh perspectives on the bewildering complexity of identity and diversity in an era of postmodernity.

Portraits of a People: Picturing African Americans in the Nineteenth Century

Dynamic images of black sitters, created from the American Revolution through the Civil War and on into the Gilded Age, illuminate the search for a self-possessed identity as well as cultural stereotypes and practices. The book Portraits of a People: Picturing African Americans in the Nineteenth Century examines these images and their contexts, ranging from a 1773 engraving of the African-born poet Phillis Wheatley purportedly drawn by her friend, the slave Scipio Moorhead, to an 1897 portrait of the artist's mother painted by the expatriate Henry O. Tanner while visiting from Paris.

The Whole Picture: The colonial story of the art in our museums & why we need to talk about it

In The Whole Picture: The colonial story of the art in our museums & why we need to talk about it, art historian and Uncomfortable Art Tour guide Alice Procter examines the possibility of decolonizing our relationship with the art around us and what should the future of museums should look like. Providing a manual for deconstructing everything you thought you knew about art and filling in the blanks with the stories that have been left out of the art history canon for centuries, she encourages readers to go beyond the grand architecture of cultural institutions and see the problematic colonial histories behind them.