The Lists

books about the most influential black female artists

Ever since the unveiling of the official portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama, we’ve been reflecting on the role of black women artists in the contemporary art world. The current exhibitions of the works of Adrian Piper at the MoMA in New York and Lauren Halsey at the MOCA in LA gave us further impetus to get smarter on the subject. We went looking for books that would educate us about the path these women have taken, and demonstrate how their work has influenced the way we see the world.

Incredibly, as of this posting there is no publication available for sale that collects the works of Amy Sherald, the painter of Mrs. Obama’s portrait. Surely that omission will corrected soon. In the meantime, here are 15 books that will celebrate, inform and inspire all of us on the topic of art created by (and in one case, about) black women.

1. The Black Female Body: A Photographic History by Deborah Willis and‎ Carla Williams is an often-cited and well-researched showcase of an array of both familiar and unknown photographic works of black women. Taking careful note of the cultural and sociological histories of the past 300 years reflected in these photos, the images range from South African to the Harlem Renaissance to the civil rights movement.

2. We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85 by Catherine Morris and Rujeko Hockley is the catalog from the ground-breaking 2017 exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum examining the political, social, cultural, and aesthetic priorities of women of color during the emergence of second-wave feminism. It showcases the work of black women artists such as Emma Amos, Maren Hassinger, Senga Nengudi, Lorraine O’Grady, Howardena Pindell, Faith Ringgold, and Betye Saar, commemorating one of the first major exhibitions to highlight the voices and experiences of women of color.

3. Zanele Muholi: Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness by Renée Mussai, and Zanele Muholi. South-African born visual activist and photographer Zanele Muholi will publish a new collection of 100 self-portraits exploring black womanhood and responding to the history of global racism. More than twenty curators, poets, and authors offer written contributions that draw out the layers of meaning in selected images. Coming September 1, 2018.

4. Carrie Mae Weems: Kitchen Table Series by Sarah Lewis,‎ Adrienne Edwards and‎ Carrie Weems is the first publication dedicated solely to this early and important body of work by the artist. The 20 photographs and 14 text panels that make up Kitchen Table Series tell a story of one woman’s life, as conducted in the intimate setting of her kitchen. The kitchen, one of the primary spaces of domesticity and the traditional domain of women, frames her story, revealing to us her relationships―with lovers, children, friends―and her own sense of self. It’s essential viewing.

5. Four Generations: The Joyner Giuffrida Collection of Abstract Art by Courtney J Martin,‎ Mary Schmidt Campbell,‎ Christopher Bedford and‎ Joost Bosland. The Joyner Giuffrida Collection of Abstract Art is widely recognized as one of the most significant collections of modern and contemporary work by African and African Diasporan artists, and Four Generations draws upon the collection’s unparalleled holdings to explore the critical contributions made by black artists to the evolution of visual art in the 20th and 21st centuries.

6. Alma Thomas by Ian Berry and Lauren Haynes examines the work of Thomas, an important artist in the Color Field movement and a pioneer among African-American artists working in abstraction. She started her painting career at the age of 68, after retiring from teaching art to junior high school students in Washington, DC. At the age of 80, her exuberantly colored abstractions were exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, where she was the first black female artist to be given a solo show. Wow.

7. Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions 1965–2016 by Christophe Cherix,‎ Cornelia Butler,‎ David Platzker and Adrian Piper. In conjunction with the most comprehensive exhibition of her work to date at the MoMA, this catalog presents more than 280 artworks that encompass the full range of Piper’s work: on paper, video, multimedia installation, performance, painting, sound and photo-texts. Essays by curators and scholars examine her extensive research and the global conditions that illuminate the significance of her art. Coming May 22, 2018.

8. Kara Walker: Pictures From Another Time by Robert F. Reid-Pharr,‎ Annette Dixon,‎ Kara Walker and Thelma Golden. Walker creates vivid images of the antebellum world in both sculpture and works on paper. This volume showcases nearly 70 examples of her work, especially her iconic black cut-paper silhouettes. In these works, the artist takes a medium that was extremely fashionable in the late 18th and early 19th centuries as “parlor art” and turns it into a powerful force to evoke the complexities of slavery, exploring themes of exploitation, accommodation and complicity on the part of both the powerful and the oppressed. She continues to push boundaries, and this shows her at the beginning of an incredible career.

9. Lorna Simpson Collages by Lorna Simpson with an introduction by Elizabeth Alexander. Using advertising photographs of black women (and men) drawn from vintage issues of Ebony and Jet magazines, these collages explore the richly nuanced language of hair. Surreal coiffures made from colorful ink washes, striking geological formations from old textbooks, and other unexpected forms and objects adorn the models to stunning effect. Featuring 160 artworks, this volume fully demonstrates the irresistible power of Simpson’s vision. Coming June 5, 2018.

10. Fired Up! Ready to Go!: Finding Beauty, Demanding Equity: An African American Life in Art. The Collections of Peggy Cooper Cafritz by Peggy Cooper Cafritz showcases works from the author’s pioneering collection, which included art by Kara Walker, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas, Yinka Shonibare, Nick Cave, Kehinde Wiley, Barkley L. Hendricks, Lorna Simpson, and Carrie Mae Weems, among many others. Tragically, over 300 works in the collection were lost in a fire,. This volume features images of 200 of the works that were lost, along with works Cafritz has collected since the fire.

11. Muse: Mickalene Thomas: Photographs by Mickalene Thomas. Known for her large-scale, rhinestone-encrusted paintings of domestic interiors and portraits, Thomas is also a reknowned photographer. As a student at Yale, she began to photograph herself and her mother. This volume is the first to gather together her various approaches to photography, including portraits, collages, Polaroids and other processes. These portraits draw equally from memories of her mother; 1970s black-is-beautiful images of women such as supermodel Beverly Johnson and actress Vonetta McGee; Édouard Manet’s odalisque figures; and the mise-en-scène studio portraiture of James Van Der Zee and Malick Sidibé. The interior space of her studio, a reappearing character in many of her photographs and paintings, frequently takes on as much of a performative role as her models do.

12. Lynette Yiadom-Boakye by Naomi Beckwith,‎ Donatien Grau,‎ Jennifer Higgie and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye is a beautiful volume celebrating the artist’s enigmatic paintings. A 2013 Turner Prize finalist and the subject of a solo show at The New Museum last spring, Yiadom-Boakye is a major talent in the international art scene, winning widespread acclaim for her large-scale, luminous portraits. Also featured in this book are two critical essays that assess her practice and distinctive approach to portraiture; an interview with the artist herself; and a selection of short stories by Yiadom-Boakye that give life to her paintings.

13.  Senga Nengudi by Senga Nengudi,‎ Bradley Rizvana,‎ Jessica Brown and‎ Ellen Tani. In the 1970s, the Colorado-based artist worked in Los Angeles as part of an emerging community of African American artists that engaged with political movements underway in the US and around the globe, including the Black Power and feminist movements. This volume features Nengudi’s recent nylon mesh pantyhose and sand sculptures. We saw one at last year’s Armory Show, and others are in the permanent collection of the Whitney Museum in Manhattan. They provoke the viewer to reflect on the treatment and images of women and the body in modern culture.

14. Barbara Chase Riboud: Sculptor by Peter Selz and‎ Anthony F. Janson. Celebrating the unique style of sculptor Barbara Chase-Riboud, this book features 100 illustrations that reveal how she has successfully blended African-American history, archaeology, spiritualism, and the Baroque tradition in her work. The artist was a prodigy: by the time she graduated from Yale with an MFA, she already had a sculpture on view at the Carnegie Mellon Institute. Simultaneously “strong and fluid and feminine and mechanical and natural,” her sculptures are a symbol of feminine strength, as well as a visual manifestation of transformation and integration.

15. Child of the Fire: Mary Edmonia Lewis and the Problem of Art History’s Black and Indian by Kirsten Pai Buick is the first book-length examination of the career of the nineteenth-century artist Mary Edmonia Lewis, best known for her sculptures inspired by historical and biblical themes. At the time, her works were considered only as reflections of her identity as an African American and Native American woman. But by analyzing four of Lewis’s most popular sculptures, each created between 1866 and 1876, the author overturns art historians’ assumptions that artworks created by African American artists necessarily reflect solely African American themes.

Here’s a bonus book to purchase later this year if this topic intrigues you: Deana Lawson by Zadie Smith, Arthur Jafa and Deana Lawson is a collection of the works of this heralded contemporary photographer. Her subject is black expressive culture, her canvas is the African Diaspora, and her work was showcased at both the 2017 Armory Show and the Whitney Biennial. Coming September 10, 2018.

We anxiously await a volume of the collected works of Amy Sherald. In the meantime, here are some of her stunning portraits. It’s an incredible body of work, and it will make for an amazing publication.

Happy viewing – and reading – and reflecting on the impact that these brilliant women have had on the world.

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