15 Enlightening Books About Black Art

15 Enlightening Books About Black Art

by Shantay Robinson

Modern Negro Art by James A. Porter

Modern Negro Art is the first book solely about African American art. First published in 1943, this text chronicles the artistry of African Americans from Pre-Civil War Days to the Second World War.  This text allows for the work of African American artist to be placed in the larger American art context. While the art of the Harlem Renaissance is revered by many, Porter discusses the contributions of African American artists before then. Discussion of works by Robert S. Duncanson, Edomonia Lewis, Jacob Lawrence, and Henry O. Tanner are included. James A. Porter was an art historian and professor at Howard University for more than forty years.


Creating Their Own Image: The History of African American Women Artists by Lisa E. Farrington

Creating Their Own Image is a comprehensive look at the contributions of African American women artists from the time of slavery up until the new millennium. Farrington starts with depictions of black women — negative and laudatory. Though this book is about African American women artists, the author is sure to maintain traditional art historical categorization where she places the work of black women participating in them. The first part of the book is dedicated to those movements that are particularly African American like the Harlem Renaissance and Black Power Movement. And the second part allows for African American women artists to be placed among the larger art world.


Flash of the Spirit: African & Afro-American Art & Philosophy by Robert Farris Thompson

Flash of the Spirit looks at five African civilizations, Yoruba, Kongo, Ejagham, Mande and Cross River, that have an impact on African American and other African Diasporic cultures through their music, textile, architecture, and religion. The rhythmic prose that make up the text are a poetic telling of a white man who had immersed himself in the aforementioned cultures for significant amounts of time in order to feel out the influences these civilizations had on African Diasporic cultures. Robert Farris Thompson has been a professor at Yale University since 1965 who specializes in African and the Afro-Atlantic world. 


Black Art: A Cultural History by Richard J. Powell

Black Art: A Cultural History provides a comprehensive look at visual representation of black culture throughout the twentieth century and early twenty-first century. It offers a look at artworks by black artists in several genres including painting, sculpture, and video. The text leans on musical traditions from blues to rap and is inclusive of artworks from throughout the African Diaspora. Powell looks at some of the most revered black artists in history including Elizabeth Catlett, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Faith Ringgold, and Betye Saar, as he puts them in conversation with one another to serve as a guide for black art history that does more than simply tell; he interprets artworks in order to create a complete black art history.


African American Art and Artists by Samella Lewis

African American Art and Artists is a comprehensive look at African American Art and Artists from slavery to 1990. Lewis organizes the book by cultural movement including Cultural Deprivation and Slavery, Emancipation and Cultural Dilemma, New Americanism and Ethnic Identity, Social and Political Awareness and Political and Cultural Awareness. She writes about each movement and then identifies the leading artists within each movement. The text includes beautiful vibrant reproductions of artworks from some lesser known artist, as well, while contextualizing their contributions. In the second half of the book, she creates categories that relate to African American history to contextualize the work of the artists to create conversations within the art historical canon. 


African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Right Era, and Beyond by Richard Powell and Virginia M. Mecklenburg

This text is a catalogue for the exhibition African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era, and Beyond that was organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum. It offers an overview essay of Twentieth-Century art by Richard J. Powell that anchors the ensuing artworks in a cultural context. The catalogue is primarily made up of the artworks found in the exhibition and biographies of the artists. This is a great coffee table book because the artworks are rich, vibrant reproductions. 


We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women 1965-85 (A Sourcebook) Edited by Catherine Morris and Rujeko Hockley

This catalogue for the We Wanted a Revolution exhibition which was on view at the Brooklyn Museum in 2017, is an essentials source for the black woman arts movement started in 1965 with the Where We At?  exhibition. This catalogue offers a look at black women’s contributions in the form of written ephemera that spurred the arts movements that fought equality and equity in art institutions. While this is an exhibition catalogue, there aren’t any images of art. More than the art that radical black women artists created, this text offers the written material they created to advance their movement. The essays included in the text are about the activism that black women participated in to make for a more equitable artworld. 


African American Art: The Long Struggle by Crystal A. Britton

African American Art offers beautiful color recreations of artworks from the time of slavery to 2006 when the book was published. Britton provides an overview of key moments in history and then offers information about the African American artists who were more prominent at the time. This book focuses on the most famous African American artists throughout American history and serves as more of a coffee table book than a comprehensive historical account. Though this text is less verbose than other comprehensive texts about African American art, the images in it are a gentle reminder of the talent of the African American artists included. 



Bearing Witness: Contemporary Works by African American Women Artists Curated by Jontyle Theresa Robinson

Bearing Witness was an exhibition of sixty works by twenty-five African American women artists at Camille Olivia Hanks Cosby Academic Center at Spelman College in 1996 during the Olympics. The exhibition traveled to some of the most prestigious institutions around the country. The exhibition catalogue includes a foreword by Maya Angelou and contributions by Pearl Cleage Johnetta Betsch Cole, Beverly Guy-Sheftall and Lowery Stokes Sims. The catalogue essays tell about black women artists in way that gives credence to their artistry. Some of the artists featured are Emma Amos, Elizabeth Catlett, Howardena Pindell, Barbara Chase Riboud, Betye Saar, and Faith Ringgold. 


Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art Curated by Thelma Golden

This text accompanies Thelma Golden’s iconic exhibition Black Male: Representation of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art at the Whitney Museum of American art in 1994. This exhibition catalogue includes essays by leading critics of black culture including bell hooks, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Greg Tate, Kobena Mercer, Isaac Julien, and Tricia Rose. These essays speak to the black male experience and theorize about it. The text uses contemporary cultural events including the Rodney King incident and the Clarence Thomas hearings to deal with black masculinity in America. Though the catalogue relies more heavily on the essays about cultural events than it does on artworks, the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Gordon Parks, and Spike Lee are discussed. 


Collecting African American Art: Works on Paper and Canvas by Halima Taha

Collecting African American Art is an instructional guide on how to collect, in particular, African American art. Taha organizes the text in a way that makes it accessible to both new and seasoned collectors by offering insider guidance that may not be readily known. She offers advice on everything from taxes, insurance, and estate planning to framing and caring for artworks. Not only does the book offer advice, it educates its reader on the varied forms of art available for collecting. While the subject of this book might appear to be complex, Taha makes it easy to understand. In addition to instructions for buying art, the author includes almost two hundred images of some of the most valuable art in the African American art historical canon.


How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness by Darby English

How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness reveals how art by black artists are not always essentially about blackness. In this book English writes about the expectation for art by black artists to represent the race as limiting to the work. English looks particularly at the work of Kara Walker, Fred Wilson, Isaac Julien, Glenn Ligon, and William Pope L. The text fleshes out the premise that “black art is a myth badly in need of a critical mythology.” English approaches black art in a postpositivist sense wherein he claims that it was not there waiting to be discovered. He claims black art is evolved through events and naming. English argues for a new understanding of “black art” and the “black artist.”


EyeMinded: Living and Writing Contemporary Art by Kellie Jones

EyeMinded is a collection of essays that not only features Kellie Jones, but it also features writing by her father, the well-known leader of the Black Arts Movement, Amiri Baraka and her sister, also a writer, Lisa Jones. The essays are a selection of her writings from over twenty years and they offer a range of diverse topics concerning the African Diaspora, multiculturalism, and abstraction. The collection features essays on Dawoud Bey, Martin Puryear, Betye Saar, Norman Lewis, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. This collection is also self-reflective in that it offers an interview of the author. Kellie Jones is a professor of Art History at Columbia University.


African-American Art by Sharon F. Patton

African-American Art tells a complete history of African American art from 1700 to 1993. It is organized by era and within each chapter there are subtopics related to the specific time. Patton writes more of a historical account, as she doesn’t do too much interpretation. The purpose of this book is to provide information about the artistic contributions African Americans have made to the art historical canon by relating the history to the eras within which the art was created. She not only writes about the artworks but the institutions that were built throughout time to make the creation of art by African Americans possible.


The Art of History: African American Women Artists Engage the Past by Lisa Gail Collins

In The Art of History Collins places the artwork of African American women into context with African American history. What Collins does in particular is identify four problems that occur within African American womanhood and delineates how black women artist approach them. She examines these social and cultural problems by using the artwork of black women artists to see how they engage with issues largely faced when being a black woman in America. In this text, she looks at a range of artists from painters to photographers. Some artists Collins writes about in this text are Lorna Simpson, Carrie Mae Weems, Renee Stout, and Alison Saar.


Shantay Robinson has participated in Burnaway’s Art Writers Mentorship Program, Duke University’s The New New South Editorial Fellowship, and CUE Art Foundation’s Art Critic Mentoring Program. She has written for Burnaway, ArtsATL, ARTS.BLACK, AFROPUNK, Number, Inc. and Washington City Paper. While  receiving an MFA in Writing from Savannah College of Art and Design, she served as a docent at the High Museum of Art. She is currently working on a PhD in Writing and Rhetoric at George Mason University.



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