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What Is African Art?

A Short History

A history of the evolving field of African art.
This book examines the invention and development of African art as an art historical category. It starts with a simple question: What do we mean when we talk about African art? By confronting the historically shifting answers to this question, Peter Probst identifies “African art” as a conceptual vessel that manifests wider societal transformations.
What Is African Art? covers three key stages in the field’s history. Starting with the late nineteenth through the mid-twentieth centuries, the book first discusses the colonial formation of the field by focusing on the role of museums, collectors, and photography in disseminating visual cultures as relations of power. It then explores the remaking of the field at the dawn of African independence with the shift toward contemporary art and the rise of Black Atlantic studies in the 1970s and 1980s. Finally, it examines the post- and decolonial reconfiguration of the field driven by questions of representation, repair, and restitution.

248 pages | 91 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2022

African Studies

Art: Middle Eastern, African, and Asian Art


"[What Is African Art?] a deeply researched, important contribution to the study of art history, with relevance to disciplines beyond the study of African art."

Library Journal

“Wedged between anthropology and art history, the study of African art requires a balanced assessment of the defining moments in the making of this field. What Is African Art?—the first historiography of its kind—takes on this challenge superbly, offering a major critical achievement. This book is indispensable to a sound understanding of the field and is a joy to read.”

Ferdinand de Jong, author of Decolonizing Heritage: Time to Repair in Senegal

What Is African Art? is a sophisticated, insightful critique of the trajectories that collectors, curators, and scholars of African art have followed since the end of the nineteenth century. As the first monographic historiography of Africanist art studies, it is sure to seed lively debate that interrogates the past and informs the future. An essential read for any and all students of African art.”

Raymond Silverman, professor emeritus of the history of art, African studies, and museum Studies, University of Michigan

Table of Contents


Part I
1. Forming a Field: Colonial Collecting, Racial Omissions, and National Rivalries
2. Celebrating Form: From Primitive to Primitivism
3. Creating Visibility and Value: Photography and Its Effects

Part II
4. Discovering the African Artist: Tradition and Tribality in the Cold War Era
5. Acknowledging the Contemporary: New Forms, New Actors
6. Extending the Horizon: Africa in the Americas

Part III
7. Intervening the Canon: The Postmodern, the Popular, and the Authentic
8. Challenging Representation: Postcolonial Critique and Curation
9. Undoing the Empire: Duress, Defiance, and Decolonial Futures

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