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African American Visual Arts

From Slavery to the Present

Celeste-Marie Bernier


This book examines the quilts, ceramics, paintings, sculpture, installations, assemblages, daguerreotypes, photography and performance art produced by African American artists over a two hundred year period. The author draws on archaeological discoveries and unpublished archival materials to recover the lost legacies of artists living and working in the United States.

As the first critical study to provide in-depth case studies of twenty artists, this book introduces readers to works created in response to the Middle Passage, Atlantic slavery, lynching, racism, segregation, and the fight for civil rights. Bernier examines little-discussed panoramas, murals, portraits, textile designs, collages and mixed-media installations to get to grips with key motifs and formal issues within African American art history.

Working within this tradition, artists experiment with cutting edge techniques and alternative subject-matter to undermine racist iconography and endorse a new visual language. They push thematic and formal boundaries to create powerful narratives and epic histories of creativity, labour, discrimination, suffering and resistance. By providing close readings of works by artists such as Elizabeth Catlett, Jacob Lawrence, William Edmondson, Howardena Pindell, Charles Alston, Romare Bearden, Norman Lewis, Betye Saar, Horace Pippin and Kara Walker, this book sheds new light on the thematic and formal complexities of an African American art tradition which still remains largely shrouded in mystery.

Key Features

  • Includes 16 colour photographs
  • Provides individual and in-depth case studies of 20 artists
  • Maps the tradition over a 200 year period (from slavery to the contemporary era)
  • Presents close readings of neglected works<


Chronology of Visual Arts by African Americans from Slavery to the Present
Introduction: The Historical Context
1. 'Grotesque jars and voodoo jugs': Africa, a Slave Past and the Visual Arts
2. 'Ethiopia Awakening': Sculpture, Religion and Folk Art
3. Black Revolution, the Mural and the Fine Arts
4. Creative Chroniclers: Developments in Photography
5. A Visual Language: Graffiti Art and Installation
Guide to Further Reading.

About the Author

Celeste-Marie Bernier is Professor of Black Studies and Personal Chair in English Literature at the University of Edinburgh. She is the author of African American Visual Arts; Characters of Blood: Black Heroism in the Transatlantic Imagination; Suffering and Sunset; World War I in the Art and Life of Horace Pippin; Stick to the Skin: African American and Black British Art (1965-2015).


This book is well written and informed by extensive research based on archival as well as secondary sources... A well researched and interesting book, a welcome addition to its field, and the author expresses an individual voice whilst also enabling artists to speak to the reader.
- Gen Doy, De Montfort University, The Art Book
This book is important because it explores onotlogical concerns that focus on the nature of African American art history, how it is written, its critical and theoretical frames and the need for more in-depth research and critical analysis... producing an informed and very rich narrative shaped by a comprehensive understanding of African American history and culture... African American Visual Arts is a clear indication that Celeste Marie Bernier is a new talent in the room and that those of us interested in expanding the discourse on African American art history have good reason to await her future publications on this and related subjects with great anticipation.
- Floyd Coleman, Howard University, Washington DC, International Review of African American Art
'This is the richest and most important book on African American visual arts on the market. It has enormous period coverage without sacrificing rich analysis and depth. It is a book that will be crucial for anyone interested in African American culture, the visual arts, and American Studies. It is brilliantly conceived, deeply research, and very well executed.'John Stauffer, Harvard University
- John Stauffer, Harvard University

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