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5 Must-Read Books on Contemporary African Art

5 Must-Read Books on Contemporary African Art

Books. They are a great resource for diving deep into a subject matter. You learn so much when you immerse yourself in reading as it allows you to learn new things about the subject matter. Contemporary African art is no different. Like every other topic, a lot can be learned about it in books, articles, videos, and other forms of documentation.

As prominent as contemporary African art is today, it only dates back to the 1980s. Finding well-researched and documented books on the subject matter can be quite the quest. It’s a rare find to single out web articles that provide in-depth information about contemporary African art.

Today’s digest peers into 5-must read art books for art lovers and collectors who want to deepen their knowledge of contemporary African art and the artists. These books were written by industry experts and in each subsection, we highlight key takeaways we got from each book.

1. “AFRICAN ARTISTS: FROM 1882 to NOW” – by Joseph L. Underwood and Chika Okeke-Agulu

Chika Okeke-Agulu

Source: Book Dragon by the Smithsonian

“If you want a book that provides the most in-depth insight on contemporary African artists, this one’s for you.

Published in 2021, this expansive representation of African art surveys the work of 316 modern and contemporary artists whose works and styles draw heavy influence from Africa. In total, 51 out of 55 African countries are represented, featuring artists such as David Goldblatt, El Anatsui, Julie Mehretu, Marlene Dumas, Lubaina Himid, Robin Rhodes, Wangechi Mutu, and William Kentridge.

AFRICAN ARTISTS is authored by Joseph L. Underwood and Chika Okeke-Agulu who together with a global advisory panel, share invaluable insight and examples on featured artists’ contributions in areas of painting, performance art, photography and sculpture, among others.

JOSEPH L. UNDERWOOD is a scholar and curator whose research focuses on artists from the African continent and the Diaspora. As an art historian of modern and contemporary periods, his projects focus on the mid-to-late twentieth century and encompass themes from the Postwar era: including post-colonialism, (trans)nationalism, globalisation, and biennials.

CHIKA OKEKE-AGULU is an artist, critic, and art historian who specialises in indigenous, modern, and contemporary African and African Diaspora art history and theory.


2. “CONTEMPORARY AFRICAN ART SINCE 1980” – by Okwui Enwezor and Chika Okeke-Agulu

Source: Book Dragon by the Smithsonian

“If you desire a comprehensive understanding of the history and timeline of contemporary African art, you must read this book.”

Many art historians rank this book as the first major survey and documentation of any kind that focused on the body of work produced by contemporary African artists.

Written by Okwui Enwezor and Chika Okeke-Agulu in 2009, this book covers 30 years as it analyses the work of diverse African artists on the continent and in the diaspora whose styles and messaging touch on Africa’s socio-cultural activities. Paying close attention to the historical transitions of contemporary African art, it begins with the end of the postcolonial paradise of the sixties up to the 1980s. It then closes with a revelation of the many political, economic, and cultural changes which were caused by globalisation.

The book examines the vital issues and themes which shaped the development of this part of the art world within the last few decades. It also explores the work of over 200 African artists.

Furthermore, the book discusses all major art mediums: collage, drawing, film, installation, painting, photography, sculpture, and video, while also covering various popular art topics and practices of the time such as aesthetic forms and genres, from conceptual to formalist, abstract to figurative practices. Moving between discursive and theoretical registers, the principal questions the book analyses are:

● What is the relationship between contemporary African art and globalisation?
● How does contemporary African art challenge and/or conform to Western art historical narratives?
● What are the different ways in which contemporary African artists are using art to address social, political, and economic issues?

OKWUI ENWEZOR is a leading curator and scholar of contemporary art, he is the Dean of Academic Affairs at the San Francisco Art Institute, and the founding publisher and editor of Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art.

CHIKA OKEKE-AGULU is an artist, critic and art historian who specialises in indigenous, modern, and contemporary African and African Diaspora art history and theory.

3. “Contemporary African Art (World of Art)” – by Sidney Littlefield Kasfir

Sidney Littlefield Kasfir
Source: Amazon

“Contemporary African Art (World of Art) surveys the diverse world of contemporary African art, focusing on its dynamic nature, themes and accomplishments.”

Published as part of the World of Art series, this book has gone on to become a staple in the contemporary African art community. It provides an in-depth examination of the major themes, developments, and accomplishments in the African art world, particularly during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Following the themes of this art space, the book speaks on topics such as the concept of artistic training, the history of African photography, local and diaspora identities, the growth of the global art market, the importance of art patronage, mediation, artistic training, and national and diaspora identities.

SIDNEY LITTLEFIELD KASFIR died on December 29, 2019, in Nairobi, Kenya. She was born in York, Maine on January 18, 1939, and earned a BA in astronomy and physics from Simmons College and a masters in Greek and Roman art history from Harvard before discovering African art while living in Uganda with her husband Nelson Kasfir.

4. “A History of Art in Africa” by Monica Blackmun Visonà, Robin Poynor, Herbert M. Cole, Suzanne Preston Blier

Monica Blackmun Visonà, Robin Poynor, Herbert M. Cole, Suzanne Preston Blier


“The book is a valuable resource for art historians and anyone interested in gaining a deep understanding of the development of African art. ”

This is the first comprehensive study to present African art in historical chronology. The study begins with a brief overview of the history of African art, from the earliest rock paintings to the present day. It then goes on to discuss the different art forms that have been produced in Africa, such as sculpture, painting, and textiles. The study also examines the different styles and techniques that have been used by African artists on the continent and in the diaspora and the different meanings that have been attached to their work.

A great deal of attention is paid to visual art culture, especially sculpture and architecture, and even the especially Africa-themed art performances such as personal jewellery, festivals and masquerades. Given that African art is also infused in daily life and royal events, there were many compelling discussions throughout the book. The authors emphasise the cultural contexts that house these artworks and influence these artists, highlighting that African art is always full of deeper meaning.

This book is commendable for how inclusive it is of artworks and artists from the African diaspora. It presents a more complete picture of African art, showing how African art has been shaped by the experiences of Africans who have lived outside of Africa.

Art historians will find this book an invaluable resource as it provides a well of knowledge to gain a deep understanding of the development of African art.


MONICA BLACKMUN VISONA is an Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of Kentucky. Her publications focus on the arts of the Lagoon Peoples and upon the larger issues of contemporary African art.

ROBIN POYNOR is a Professor of Art History at the University of Florida. He is a specialist in Yoruba arts in Africa and the New World and is a regular contributor to African Arts. He has served as both consultant and guest curator for numerous exhibitions.

HERBERT M. COLE is a Professor Emeritus of Art History at the University of California, Santa Barbara and a recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Arts Council of the African Studies Association. He has published numerous books and exhibition catalogues.

SUZANNE PRESTON BLIER is Allen Whitehill Clowes Professor of Fine Arts and Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University, Massachusetts.

5. “Reading the Contemporary: African Art from Theory to the Marketplace” – edited by Olu Oguibe & Okwui Enwezor

Olu Oguibe & Okwui Enwezor

“This book is a comprehensive collection of perspectives from a variety of influential figures in the African art world.”

Sectioned into themes of Theory and Cultural Transaction, African Art History, Location, Practice, and Negotiated Identities, this anthology features twenty essays by major players in the African art space including critical thinkers, artists, and scholars.

The writers explore the visual culture of the contemporary African art scene while paying close attention and locating it within relevant debates and conversations on African culture and history.


Olu Oguibe
Olu Oguibe is a Nigerian-born American artist, art historian, curator, and leading contributor to postcolonial theory on new information technology studies. He is an academic Professor of Art and African-American Studies at the University of Connecticut, Storrs. He is also a senior fellow of the Vera List Center for Art and Politics at the New School, New York City, and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.[2]

Okwui Enwezor
Late Okwui Enwezor was a Nigerian curator, art critic, writer, poet, and educator, specialising in art history. He lived in New York City and Munich. In 2014, he was ranked 24 in the ArtReview list of the 100 most powerful people in the art world.


This curated list is both educational and entertaining. Learning about contemporary African art is just as important as collecting it. Whether you are a voracious reader, a historian of African art, or just curious to learn more, this list is a great starting point.

Until next digest,
stay curious.