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Black Art Library Recommended Reading List

We partnered with Asmaa Walton, Founder + Curator of the blooming Black Art Library, a digital educational resource, and showcase for Black art books, pamphlets and readings, to share with you her recommended reading list to further delve into the expansive world of Black art + culture.

| Edited by Tony Nicholas Clark |

Li’l Sis and Uncle Willie by Gwen Everett (1994)

In ‘Li’l Sis and Uncle Willie’, Gwen Everett retells the life and work of artist William H. Johnson via the imagined narrative of his niece ‘Li’l Sis’. Though slightly fictionalized, these stories are based on actual conversations Johnson had with his family whom he reconnected within 1944 South Carolina. Their conversations touched on an array of subjects including (but not limited to) the period of enslavement, and black life in Harlem prior to World War 2. As this book is geared towards grade-school audiences, Sis’s narrative levels with them as her character is five years old. Accompanied by a set of 27 of Johnson’s most famous pieces, author Gwen Everett also introduces readers to a snippet of Johnson’s expansive portfolio that spanned nearly two decades. His special bond with his niece and pride in the complexity of the African-American experience shines through in this necessary book. Find it here!

A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin by Jen Bryant (2013)

Image via Black Art Library

From the time of his youth spent in Pennsylvania in the late 1800s, Horace Pippin was an avid drawer and painter -- a passion that would span his entire lifetime. Pippin’s life was one that was rocked by a series of hardships. As a child, when his Father left the family, he was forced to drop out of school and work full time to support them. Later, he would be critically wounded during his service in World War 1. He was wounded so much so in fact that he would never again have full use of his right arm. Upon returning home, Pippin remained undeterred in his quest to refine his artistic craft, as he continued painting using his left arm to guide the other. He sourced his inspiration from memories, family oral histories, and the Bible. In a homage to minimalism, Bryant writes Mr. Pippin’s story using brief, vivid sentences throughout the book. Each segment welcomes people into Pippin’s childhood roots, his wartime life, and miscellaneous joys and struggles. Illustrator Melissa Sweets assists in bringing this story to life with her sharp use of mixed-media illustrations. Together, Bryant and Sweets create an exciting adventure for young readers who are being welcomed into the world of Horace Pippin for the very first time. Find it here!

Grandpa and the Library: How Charles White Learned to Paint by C. Ian White (2018)

In this delightful children’s book, readers journey with young Charles White on his daily trips to the Chicago Public Library. While there, he enjoys rummaging through picture books and quietly observing fellow library-goers. White soon begins to develop a hobby of drawing his observances on scrap paper following his library excursions. As time goes on, he learns how to mix and oil paints as well from observing art students at a nearby park. Over time, with diligent practice, he begins to create portraits of his family and friends, and prominent African-American activists, entertainers, philosophers, and scientists. By doing so, Charles White not only cemented himself as a landmark figure in the black arts movement but also helped to further the effort of commemorating black life through various art mediums. His art has been placed in museums all across the United States. Written and Illustrated by his son, C. Ian White, as well as featuring full-color replicas of his father’s original artworks, this inspiring story relives the journey that influenced Charles White to become an artist and teacher. Find it here!

Between the Lines: How Ernie Barnes Went from the Football Field to the Art Gallery by Sandra Neil Wallace (2018)

In this picture book geared towards adolescent audiences, readers will discover the inspiring true story of legendary NFL player and artist Ernie Barnes. Barnes’ knack for drawing and painting began when he was a child -- he loved drawing things in the mud with his friends and carrying a sketchbook with him everywhere so that he was always prepared when inspiration hit. Unfortunately, in segregated North Carolina, he didn’t know if there would be a viable path forward for him to pursue art as a career. Thus, he set out on the athletic route instead, which led to him becoming a football star. Despite his successes as an athlete, Ernie never relented on his dream of becoming a renowned artist. ‘Between the Lines’ is the story of how Ernie Barnes overcame barriers that led to him becoming an important figure for African-Americans in the sport and art worlds. This beautiful book highlights the artwork of this underexplored artist who excelled at interpolating the world around him. Barnes’ has most notably been shown in museums such as the African American Museum in Philadelphia, and the California African American museum. Find it here!

"It is intended to be an educational resource to share with the Black community and beyond... The Black Art Library is a labor of love that I want to gift to Detroit"

Asmaa Walton on the purpose of Black Art Library

Jake Makes a World: Jacob Lawrence a Young Artist in Harlem by Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts (2015)

Jake Makes a World, set in Harlem, New York, is the telling of the creative pursuits of Jacob Lawrence. In tune with a common practice amongst artists, Jake finds inspiration for his artwork through the community he lives in. This includes the interior setting of his mother’s apartment riddled with unique wall patterns, lively friends and neighbors in the streets, and the art studio that he goes to after school every day to bring his creative thoughts to life on canvas. Lawrence is noted for his use of black and browns in conjunction with vivid colors to portray the African-American experience in mid-20th century Harlem. In this epic tale of his youth, Rhodes-Pitts takes readers on a fun journey throughout Lawrence’s neighborhood. His work can be found in numerous museums’ permanent collections, namely the Museum of Modern Art, Art Institute Chicago, and the National Gallery of Art. Find it here!

William H. Johnson: An American Modern by Teresa G. Gionis, Richard J. Powell and Leslie King-Hammond (2011)

Image via Black Art Library

William H. Johnson was a paramount figure in 20th Century American art. Originally from Florence, South Carolina, Johnson relocated to New York City at age seventeen where he worked a number of odd jobs to afford an education at the National Academy of Design. Under the study of Charles Louis Hinton, Charles Webster Hawthorne, Charles Courtney Curran and George Willoughby Maynard, Johnson furthered his acumen as a virtuoso skilled in numerous media and techniques. His talents eventually took him to Paris, France, where he had his first solo exhibition at the Students and Artists Club. It was in Paris where he met and fell in love with his future wife, textile artist Holcha Krake. In 1929, he received the prestigious gold medal for fine arts from the William E. Harmon Foundation Award for Distinguished Achievement Among Negroes. This particular volume of art features his art from the collection at Morgan State University. The pieces showcase Johnson’s range as a modernist painter of post-impressionist and expressionist works. Gionis, Powell, and King-Hammond, preeminent scholars of Johnson, help readers to examine the exuberant and tragic life of this trailblazer in refreshingly new ways. Find it here!

Black Romantic: The Figurative Impulsive in Contemporary African-American Art by the Studio Museum in Harlem (2002)

In ‘Black Romantic’, the Studio Museum in Harlem seeks to dispel the myth that Romantic art is limited to the charming portraits and scenery often associated with the American and European Romantic style of the late-18th century and early-19th century. A painting of a young man with distended hair extending in multiple directions, a painting of an elderly woman observing her laundry breezing about on a clothesline, as well as a painting of two young girls examining a flower that’s grown from a crack in the sidewalk are just a few examples of the ways in which the category ‘Black Romantic’ distinguishes itself from the commonplace styles in Romance art. The themes, however, remain universal. This brilliant catalog companion to the 2002 art exhibit of the same name, is (according to Director Larry Stokes Sims), "organized around elements of desire, dreams, determination, and romance particular to the black experience present a viewpoint that is oppositional to modernist conceptualizations of blackness flavored by exogenous exoticism, stereotype, caricature, and even abstractionist manipulation." Readers will enjoy the beautiful photos in this book that are so acutely curated around black American life. Find it here!

The Shape of Abstraction: Selections from the Ollie Collection curated by Gretchen L. Wagner and Alexis Assam (2017)

The Shape of Abstraction: Selections from the Ollie Collection is an ensemble of art from five generations of black artists who have transformed radical abstract art since the 1940s. Many of the artists featured in this exhibition remain unsung heroes in the art sphere, as their accomplishments still remain largely overlooked and excluded (at present) from the art history narrative. One of the overarching reasons for the underrepresentation of these artists is racial inequality -- they were often denied the same exhibition and networking opportunities that were readily afforded to their white counterparts. It was in 2017 that Ronald and Monique Ollie donated their collection of 81 works by black abstractionists to the Saint Louis Art Museum. Among the artists featured in this collection are drawer Norman Lewis, painters Sam Gilliam and James Little, and printmaker Chakaia Booker. This collection, as curated by Gretchen L. Wagner and Alexis Assam, seeks to amplify the work of black radical abstract artists of the past and present for new audiences and succeeding generations to be inspired by. Find it here!

Fired Up! Ready to Go! Finding Beauty, Demanding Equity: an African American Life in Art: The Collections of Peggy Cooper Cafritz by Peggy Cafritz, Thelma Golden, Kerry James Marshall, Simone Leigh, Uri McMillan (2018)

Peggy Cooper Cafritz, the co-founder of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, spent decades collecting a massive and essential art collection that solely featured artists of color. Following a residential house fire in 2009, many of those pieces were lost. However, Cafritz rebuilt the collection and was, fortunately, able to recover some of the pieces that had once been thought to be lost forever. This profound book features 200 of the ‘lost’ works, as well as countless works she had collected since the tragic house fire. Artists among the likes of Obama portrait painter Kehinde Wiley, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Nina Chanel Abney, Derek Fordjour, Tschabalala Self, Titus Kaphar, and Simone Leigh are spotlighted in this collection. Each of these artists were supported by Cafritz early in their careers. Once lesser-known due to the vastness of the art world, ‘Fired Up!’ has catapulted these artists into the forefront. In addition to art, Cafritz features an autobiographical essay recounting her upbringing in Mobile, Alabama to her time as a philanthropist, activist, school co-founder, and art collector in Washington, D.C. Readers will delight in indulging in this finely crafted snapshot of African-American life. Find it here!

Image via Black Art Library

African American Art: The Long Struggle by Crystal A. Britton (2006)

Throughout history, African Americans have always contributed greatly to art and its myriad of forms. In some instances, many of these contributions have gone overlooked due to racial inequalities in exhibition and publishing opportunities. These inequalities have spilled over into the way art history is taught as well, among those issues being revisionist histories and sometimes even complete omission of black artists’ and their curriculum vitaes. In this volume, Britton offers an overview of well-known (and little known) black art spanning from the period of enslavement to the even more pronounced paintings, sculptures and prints of the late twentieth century. Accompanying these images are authoritative texts to assist readers in their understanding of the images and the history behind them. This fantastic celebration of African American art is sure to invoke pride and joy for all who come across it. Find it here!

Find more information on the Black Art Library project here.

Tony Nicholas Clark is a lifelong poet. His work can be found in publications such as ‘Short Edition’, ‘Hyphen Literary & Art Magazine’, and ’Call and Response Journal Vol.1. In 2016, he was the keynote poet for a Wordsmiths’ Reading Series Event honoring Obama-inaugural poet Ricardo Blanco at Bucks County Community College. Tony enjoys reading and baking in his free time.

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