In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Art, Art History, and the Study of Africa

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works and Visual Resources
  • Bibliographies and Databases
  • Journals
  • Methodology and the State of the Discipline
  • Art and Archaeology

African Studies Art, Art History, and the Study of Africa
Patrick McNaughton, Diane Pelrine
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 October 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0017


African cultures have created sumptuous and subtle art in numerous materials for many millennia. Change has been constant, as we know from the ancient arts of Nigeria, Zimbabwe, and Mali. Recognition of the continent’s artistic complexity and sophistication came slowly in the West, and the study of African art is little more than a century old. This bibliography introduces the sub-Saharan art literature, providing a historiographic overview, and presents recent resources. The field is vast, so other bibliographies will cover modern and contemporary African art and the arts of regions, nations, and ethnic groups, as well as African ceramics, textiles, basketry, jewelry, and other metal creations, architecture, and body arts and embellishments. North Africa and the Sahara are also left to a future bibliography; they have many touch points with sub-Saharan Africa but are simultaneously quite distinct. The small number of entries pertaining to eastern and southern Africa reflects the much smaller art literature for those areas. Sections in this bibliography include early (pre-1970) works, methodology and state of the discipline, overviews and surveys, reference works and visual resources, bibliographies and databases, journals, archaeology, and several important topics: aesthetics; style and ethnicity; artists and authorship; leadership; spirituality; materials and techniques; performance; exhibiting African art; and buying, selling, and repatriation. We thank Jessica Hurd for suggestions.

Classic Publications Before 1970

The first seven decades of the 20th century laid important foundations for future research, including its cross-disciplinary nature. In the century’s earlier decades, information came from colonial officers, travelers, missionaries, expatriate teachers, art school founders, museum curators, and anthropologists (see Adams 1989, cited under Methodology and the State of the Discipline). Only after midcentury did art historians begin making serious contributions to the budding field. Roy Sieber received his PhD in art history in 1957, followed by Douglas Fraser in 1959 and Robert Farris Thompson in 1965; these three scholars established African art history in the United States. By the 1970s, a critical mass of scholarly expertise and experience, data, and interpretive perspectives inspired a new degree of analytical detail and intensity. These more recent publications all owe a debt to the pre-1970 “classic” publications annotated here and in the subsections Regional and Ethnic Surveys Before 1970 and Special Topics Publications before 1970. The general texts included in this section helped fuel the large numbers of publications that began appearing in the 1970s and suggest many of the topics that were to become prominent. They emphasize sculpture, especially figures and masks, establish canons of forms, and highlight a wide aesthetic spectrum (Elisofon and Fagg 1978, Sweeney 1969). The relationship between ethnicity and style (Fagg 1965, Sydow 1954), the notion of style areas (Kjersmeier 1967, Sieber and Rubin 1968), the categorization of artworks according to function (Trowell 1970), the interrelated importance of form and context (Leiris and Fry 1968), and the value of field data (Himmelheber 1960) are some of the topics explored by these early authors that were to become important areas of debate and discussion for later scholars. Many of these publications, such as Fagg 1965, Trowell 1970, and Leiris and Fry 1968, organize their discussions of ethnic groups geographically, from west to east and north to south, a system still frequently used today.

  • Elisofon, Eliot, and William Buller Fagg. The Sculpture of Africa. New York: Hacker Art Books, 1978.

    First published in 1958, this book features photographs by photojournalist Elisofon whose extensive photo archive is now at the National Museum of African Art. The text by William Fagg is dated, but Ralph Linton’s preface includes an early critique of the term “primitive.”

  • Fagg, William Buller. Tribes and Forms in African Art. New York: Tudor, 1965.

    This is the best-known example of Fagg’s theory that African people are naturally organized into distinctive units (“tribes”) with an internal coherence that produces a unique array of formal components which become, particularly in sculpture, their “tribal style.” Based on the 1964 Berlin Festival exhibition “Africa: 100 Stämme, 100 Meisterwerke.”

  • Himmelheber, Hans. Negerkunst und Negerkünstler. Braunschweig, West Germany: Klinckhardt & Biermann, 1960.

    German Africanist Himmelheber pursued ethnographic data on several African research trips and pioneered interest in individual artists. Includes an excellent bibliography for its time, with a heavy emphasis on European sources.

  • Kjersmeier, Carl. Centres de style de la sculpture nègre africaine. 4 vols. in 1. New York: Hacker Art Books, 1967.

    Originally published 1935–1938. Kjersmeier was the first expert to organize African sculpture around the styles’ geographic distribution. The ethnographic information is dated. Vol. 1, Afrique Occidentale Française; Vol. 2, Guinée Portugaise, Sierra-Leone, Libéria, Côte d’Or, Togo, Dahomey, Nigéria; Vol. 3, Congo Belge; Vol. 4, Cameroun, Afrique Équatoriale Française, Angola, Tanganyika, Rhodésie.

  • Leiris, Michel, and Jacqueline Fry. African Art. Translated by Michael Ross. New York: Golden Press, 1968.

    This hefty tome balances discussions of contexts and uses with formal qualities. Includes a thoughtful section on the relationships of function and form and a helpful glossary-index. Much of the data here has been superseded by newer research, but the bibliography includes many useful European sources.

  • Sieber, Roy, and Arnold Rubin. Sculpture of Black Africa: The Paul Tishman Collection. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1968.

    This exhibition catalogue of a private collection (now part of National Museum of African Art) initiated the breakdown of the “tribal style” concept and suggested alternate models for organizing African art surveys by arranging ethnic groups into larger units based on language and culture relationships or aspects of geography.

  • Sweeney, James Johnson. African Negro Art. New York: Arno Press, 1969.

    This is a reprint of the well-illustrated 1935 catalogue of large landmark exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Sweeney completely downplayed ethnographic context and foregrounded aesthetics and formal qualities that contributed to Europe’s modernist aesthetic. Greatly influenced Africanist pioneers such as Robert Goldwater (see Goldwater 1960, cited under Regional and Ethnic Surveys Before 1970).

  • Sydow, Eckart von. Afrikanische Plastik: Aus dem Nachlass herausgegeben von Gerdt Kutscher. New York: G. Wittenborn, Vorwort, 1954.

    Intended as part of a series first published 1930, but posthumously expanded and edited by colleague Gerdt Kutscher, this is an early attempt to classify African art using stylistic analysis (see also Olbrechts 1959, cited under Regional and Ethnic Surveys Before 1970); includes illustrations from outstanding European collections.

  • Trowell, Margaret. Classical African Sculpture. 3d ed. New York: Praeger, 1970.

    Originally published in 1954. The author, the founder of a Uganda art school, advocated understanding African sculpture from joined artistic and ethnographic perspectives. Her generalizations on meanings and functions are now antiquated, but she developed still useful concepts of art aimed at spiritual forces to harness power and art aimed at people to garner status or produce enjoyment.

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