THIS YEAR’S SELECTION of the Best Black Art Books includes 12 volumes that in various ways are reframing art history—from scholarly works shedding light on major cultural moments and volumes of groundbreaking photography, to exhibition catalogs surveying broadly the work of important artists such as Kerry James Marshall and Alma Thomas. Highly recommended among Culture Type’s picks is a substantial tome from collector Pamela Joyner, whose unparalleled holdings feature more than 100 African American artists. She emphasizes her engagement with artists, as well as museum curators, often introducing them to new artists and loaning works from her collection to their institutions. Joyner’s mission? “It’s no less ambitious than an effort to reframe art history,” she says. Overall, 12 books featuring work by and about people of African descent rank among the best this year. (Titles listed in order of publication date.)
“Stan Douglas: The Secret Agent,” by Stan Douglas, with contributions by Eric Bruyn, Jason Smith, Dirk Snauwert, and Séamus Kealy (Ludion, 192 pages). | Published Jan. 26, 2016, hardcover
This compelling volume documents three recent projects by Canadian artist Stan Douglas, who uses photographs and moving images to surface, consider and manipulate specific political and culture moments. For the video installation “The Secret Agent,” Douglas took Joseph Conrad’s 1907 novel set in London and reimagined it in Lisbon, Portugal, in the aftermath of the 1974 Carnation Revolution. A six-hour, experimentally sequenced jazz film set in 1974 at the the renowned CBS 30th Street Studio, “Luanda-Kinshasa” explores the emergence of a globally minded black consciousness and its influence on the New York music scene. “Disco Angola” is a series of eight staged historical photographs juxtaposing two distant places at parallel moments in time—the Angolan Civil War and New York’s glamorous 1970s disco era. Each of these projects have been presented in exhibitions and this monograph masterfully adapts the works to the page with installation views and graphics that reinvent the way “The Secret Agent,” for example, was presented on multiple screens. There are essay contributions and an original script by Douglas, but most of the volume is dominated by many, many full-color images including film stills and production shots.
“Mounting Frustration: The Art Museum in the Age of Black Power,” by Susan E. Cahan (Duke University Press, 344 pages). | Published Feb. 19, 2016, hardcover
New York City has a storied history, one of mounting frustration when it comes to integrating its elite art museums. The first demonstrations against the institutions came in 1968. Susan E. Cahan, a curator, scholar, and dean of the arts at Yale College, has spent her career working in museums and academia, the entire time researching this book, which is substantiated by countless interviews with artists (Benny Andrews, Howardena Pindell, Faith Ringgold, among others), activists, and museum officials, as well as institutional documents, correspondence, and archival images. She explores the landscape through five key exhibitions: “Electronic Refractions II” (1968) at the Studio Museum in Harlem; “Harlem on My Mind” (1969) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; “Contemporary Black Artists in America” (1971) at the Whitney Museum of American Art”; and “Romare Bearden: The Prevalence of Ritual” (1971) and “The Sculpture of Richard Hunt” (1971) at the Museum of Modern Art.
“This book excavates the moment when museums were forced to face artists’ demands for justice and equality. What strategies did African American artists use to gain institutional access, and what tactics did museum professionals employ, as the establishment and the activists wrestled over power and control? What were the models for democratizing museums? Which actions brought success or failure? …And why, five decades later, do we find many of the same challenges in the major museums: a persistent belief that token inclusion is synonymous with institutional change?” — Mounting Frustration
“Carrie Mae Weems: Kitchen Table Series,” by Carrie Mae Weems with Sarah Lewis and Adrienne Edwards (Damiani/Matsumoto Editions, 86 pages). | Published April 26, 2016, hardcover
Carrie Mae Weems produced The Kitchen Table Series (1990) more than 25 years ago. Among her most important bodies of work, the images consider domesticity, women’s circumstances, and their relationships with lovers, friends and children. Exploring gender and power roles in an intimate familial setting, the photography series features Weems herself depicting an archetype coming into her own. The book includes all 20 images along with the 14 text panels from the series, which is published in its entirety for the first time. Each element has its own page and three gatefolds present a trio of images side-by-side. Essays by curators Sarah Lewis and Adrienne Edwards introduce and contextualize the work.
“A work of art gains altitude over time if it gestures to a universal horizon. At the heart of the “Kitchen Table Series” is an answer to an eternal question: how do we find our own power? The photographic suite …seems to be about relationships—lovers, friends, and daughters, mothers. Yet the animating focus is about coming into our own, how any quest for sovereignty is shaped not just by longing, [but] striving towards a newly enlarged vision of one’s self in the world.”
— Sarah Lewis, Kitchen Table Series
“Kerry James Marshall: Mastry,” contributions by Ian Alteveer, Helen Molesworth, Dieter Roelstraete and Abigail Winograd (Skira Rizzoli 288 pages). | Published May 3, 2016, hardcover
Chicago-based painter Kerry James Marshall seeks to recast the art history canon with representations of black people and black narratives. This long-awaited volume is a definitive monograph published to coincide with “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry,” arguably the most groundbreaking and celebrated exhibition of the year. The survey was organized by MCA Chicago, MOCA Los Angeles, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where it is currently on view at The Met Breuer. Fully illustrated, the cloth-covered book includes images of more than 100 paintings—portraits, landscapes, interiors, and comics—from throughout Marshall’s 35-year career, paired with contributions from curators Ian Alteveer, Helen Molesworth, and Dieter Roelstraete, as well as Elizabeth Alexander, among others. A section of gray-colored pages distinguishes eight writings by Marshall.
“Invisible Man: Gordon Parks and Ralph Ellison in Harlem,” by Michal Raz-Russo with contributions by Douglas Druick, Peter W. Kunhardt Jr., Matthew S. Wikkovsky, John F. Callahan, and Jean-Christophe Cloutier
(Steidl Dap, 128 pages). | Published June 28, 2016, hardcover
Photographer Gordon Parks was friends with author Ralph Ellison and the two collaborated on a pair of projects, Harlem photo essays published in full for the first time in this book. “Harlem Is Nowhere” (1948), focused on the first integrated psychiatric clinic in New York, and “A Man Becomes Invisible,” appeared in the Aug. 25, 1952, edition of Life magazine, shortly after the publication of Ellison’s novel “Invisible Man.” The foreword states that the story told in these pages “is about the synthesis of two different art forms, photography and writing, in the service of social change.” Complementing an exhibition that was on view at the Art Institute of Chicago, the volume includes Parks’s black and white images with narrative captions accompanying the plates; Ellison’s typed manuscript for “Harlem is Nowhere,” complete with handwritten edits; and the layout pages for “A Man Becomes Invisible,” reproduced from Life.
“African Catwalk,” photographs by Per-Anders Pettersson, with contributions by Stella Jean, Simone Cipriani, Alessia Glaviano, and Allana Finley (Kehrer Verlag, 168 pages). | Published Aug. 9, 2016, hardcover
With the advent of social media, the once exclusive world of high fashion is accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. Fall and spring runway shows in America and Europe are seen by fashion fans the world over, not just industry insiders. Given this, it is thrilling to behold this volume, a visual feast with images by Per-Anders Pettersson, a Swedish-born photographer who is based in Cape Town, South Africa. The book documents fashion runways from 2010-2015 in 16 African countries, including South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia, Angola, Nigeria, Tanzania, Democratic Republic of Congo, Senegal, and Ghana. Pettersson’s behind-the-scenes and catwalk images are far more compelling than those published widely of the more prominent and established international fashion weeks. While the fashions, fabrics, and adornments are amazing, the models make the images. The photographs are all about the lighting—bright, dark and sometimes shadowy—beautifully framing the models and always emphasizing the amazing color of the fabrics. The volume features a wide-range of images from tight shots of hemlines and shoes and the faces of models (see cover), to head-to-toe outfits in mid stride and wide shots of audiences at shows.
“His picture making embodies the disruption and disorder inherent to African fashion. African designers have a choice of assimilating themselves to international norms or standing out, and ‘African Catwalk’ shows how the continent’s designers choose to rage against the traditional statutes of the global fashion machine. His photos reinforce the notion of ‘made by Africans in Africa for Africans’ as a lifestyle choice for global consumers.”
— Allana Finley, African Catwalk
Four Generations: The Joyner Giuffrida Collection of Abstract Art, edited by Courtney J. Martin, with an introduction by Mary Schmidt Campbell, and contributions including Christopher Bedford and Joost Bosland (Gregory R. Miller & Co, 384 pages). | Published Sept. 27, 2016, hardcover
With a concentration on Abstraction, the Joyner Giuffrida Collection includes more than 300 works by about 100 African American and African diaspora artists, including Sam Gilliam, Norman Lewis, Alma Thomas, Richard Mayhew, Edward Clark, Charles Gaines, Mark Bradford, Glenn Ligon, Odili Donald Odita, Lorna Simpson, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Robin Rhode, William T. Williams, Shinique Smith, and Samuel Levi Jones, among others. Initiated by influential collector Pamela Joyner, the extensive holdings are considered among the most significant of their kind. This impressive, nearly 400-page volume documents the collection with full-color images. Organized in four parts with sections devoted to each artist, the foreword by Mary Schmidt Campbell frames contributions from many other leading scholars and curators. Beyond the compelling art and writings, the most rewarding content is the conversations published in the volume, including salon sessions at the San Francisco home of Joyner and Alfred Giuffrida, Thelma Golden talking with Glenn Ligon, Charles Gaines and Mark Bradford engaging each other, and an interview with the collectors by Courtney J. Martin.
“In my collecting interests, I have largely been attracted to painting, formalism, and abstraction. This is, in part, simply an aesthetic choice. It is also something of a philosophical preference grounded in an acknowledgement of the environment that persisted for African American artists working in the second and third quarters of the twentieth century. at that time, the mainstream art world expected these artists to find legitimacy by producing representational work with obviously African American subject matter. Similarly, the African American community was not especially supportive of abstract artists.
— Pamela Joyner, Four Generations
“Whitfield Lovell: Kin,” with contributions by Sarah Lewis, Julie L McGee, Klaus Ottmann and Elsa Smithgall, and an introduction by Irving Sandler (Skira Rizzoli, 224 pages). | Published Oct. 4, 2016, hardcover
Images of anonymous African Americans rendered from vintage photographs form the basis of Whitfield Lovell’s practice, a sustained exploration of the black experience through history and memory. Two presentations in Washington, D.C., “The Card Series II: The Rounds,” a 54-part installation in the visual art gallery of the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, and “Whitfield Lovell: The Kin Series and Related Works,” a traveling exhibition currently on view at the Phillips Collection, have brought new attention to his work. The New York-based artist draws portraits of people featured in old discarded photographs taken between Emancipation and the modern Civil Rights era and often creates a narrative “tableaux” by pairing the images with found objects. This monograph coincides with the Phillips show and features a striking portfolio of Lovell’s “Kin” series, along with contributions by the exhibition’s curator Elsa Smithgall, and Sarah Lewis, among others.
“Power to the People: The World of the Black Panthers,” by Stephen Shames and Bobby Seale, with photographs by Stephen Shames (Harry N. Abrams, 256 pages). | Published Oct. 18, 2016, hardcover
The Black Panther Party was founded 50 years ago in October. Several books were published to mark the historic milestone celebrating the Black Power organization that sought racial justice, promoted social programs for the poor, and carried guns legally in self-defense against police aggression. This one offers first-hand insight from Bobby Seale, who co-founded the Panthers with the late Huey P. Newton, and an amazing assemblage of documentary photographs by Stephen Shames. Bold design choices—from the header typeface to the bright yellow accents throughout—visually define the volume. First person oral histories—from Seale, Kathleen Cleaver, Ericka Huggins, Khaled Raheem, Billy X Jennings, and Emory Douglas, the minister of culture who designed the group’s newspaper—fortify the book. The figures talk about everything: local chapters around the nation; the party’s free lunch program, free medical clinics, Liberation Schools, and newspaper; Eldridge Cleaver, George Jackson, Fred Hampton, and Bobby Hutton; members being jailed, accused of inciting a riot, firearms charges, murder, and more; the Free Huey and Free Bobby campaigns; and the party’s Ten Point Program, the principles for which it stood. Shames notes that while he is not ignoring negative aspects of the Panthers, the images focus on the positive and “deal with aspirations and vision.”
“Bobby and I wrote this book with the future in mind. We believe that a look back at the role of the Black Panther Party during the turbulent 1960s will help us to better understand the present, and perhaps facilitate a brighter future.” — Stephen Shames, Power to the People
“The Ecstasy of St. Kara,” by Kara Walker, with contributions by Reto Thüring and Beau Rutland, John Lansdowne, Tracy K. Smith, and photographs by Ari Marcopoulos (Cleveland Museum of Art, 79 pages). |
Published Oct. 18, 2016, softcover
“The Ecstasy of St. Kara,” probes America’s history of racism and subjugation, issues familiar in the Kara Walker’s work. These drawings explore a much more expansive arc, considering the influence of religion and imagining a direct line from past injustices to contemporary challenges and police violence that have borne the Black Lives Matter movement. The title of the exhibition references “The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa,” a group of sculptures in a chapel in Rome. Walker made the work while she was in the city earlier this year. This catalog, coinciding with the artist’s current exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art, is a work of art and captivating design unto itself. Within the sturdy kraft board covers are generous images of the exhibition works framed and in detail. The book begins and ends with multiple spreads of Walker’s drawings. Brief writings by the artist and curators complement the visuals.
“This group of graphite and charcoal works, created in a burst of activity over three weeks in spring 2016, reflects ongoing questions I have about figuration—in addition to all the rest. They are related to how narratives of faith operate, and the enormous impact religion has had on colonizing and enslaving black people.” — Kara Walker, The Ecstasy of St. Kara
“1971: A Year in the Life of Color,” by Darby English (University of Chicago Press, 286 pages). |
Published Dec. 20, 2016, hardcover
Nearly a half century ago, there was a political and activist movement to gain agency for black artists and those who studied their work, within New York City’s major museums. A few years after these actions got underway, a desire to gain freedom of expression “from overt racial presentation” took hold among African American artists whose art was defined by color and abstraction. In this accessible, scholarly study, art historian and University of Chicago professor Darby English examines this modern phenomena through close consideration of two groundbreaking U.S. exhibitions: “Contemporary Black Artists in America” (1971) at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and “The DeLuxe Show,” which was held a renovated former movie theater in a “poor” Houston neighborhood. The latter, featured a racially diverse roster of artists—including Anthony Caro, Dan Christensen, Ed Clark, Sam Gilliam, Al Loving, Kenneth Noland, and William T. Williams—and was supported by the founders of the Menil Collection. Illustrated with documentary photographs, and full-color images of art and installation views, the book is rife with footnotes (periodically occupying more space on a page than the main text). The author’s rigor is an added plus for those who wish to delve further.
“Certain that ‘no serious black artist today would accept to be include in an exclusively black show’ and that any exhibition he organized would have to include nonblack artists as well, (Peter) Bradley (an African American artist who was also an art dealer at the time) proposed a competing vision. ‘This selection,’ said Bradley, ‘breaks down the barriers that create this whole theory of blacks shows and white shows. The DeLuxe Show marks the first time that good black artists share the attention and the tribute with good [nonblack] artists.'” — 1971: A Year in the Life of Color
“Alma Thomas,” co-edited by Ian Berry and Lauren Haynes (Prestel, 256 pages) |
Published Dec. 22, 2016, hardcover
Alma Thomas (1891-1978) would have appreciated the beauty of this red, cloth-covered monograph. Co-edited by Ian Berry and Lauren Haynes, the fully illustrated catalog complements the first major museum survey of her work in two decades. The two-venue exhibition was presented this year at the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum at Skidmore College and the Studio Museum in Harlem. The book expands beyond the exhibition, offering a nearly encyclopedic accounting of Thomas’s work—more than 125 vibrant, colorful paintings and works on paper, many published for the first time. A number of studies appear adjacent to the finished paintings they inspired. A preface by Thelma Golden anchors the 256-page book and is followed by scholarly essays from Haynes, Nikki A. Greene and Bridget R. Cooks and specially commissioned artwork responding to Thomas’s oeuvre by contemporary artists Leslie Hewitt, Jennie C. Jones, Leslie Wayne and Saya Woolfalk.
READ CULTURE TALK about Alma Thomas catalog with Ian Berry, Director of the Tang Teaching Museum