The History of African Art (Art Essentials)

Suzanne Preston Blier

A concise, accessible, and up- to-date overview of the arts of Africa from prehistoric times to the present day.

This indispensable introductory guide explores the art of the African continent from its early origins over 150,000 years ago to the contemporary, set in the context of postcolonial debates, the restitution of cultural objects and artifacts, and the challenges of the present. This enormous and complex field of study, once under-appreciated by the Western art world, is now of global importance and an essential subject of education in art history.

For ease of reference and analysis, leading African art expert Suzanne Preston Blier has structured this guide chronologically into manageable and meaningful chapters covering ancient art, the Middle Ages, travel and trade, encounters with Europe in the age of exploration, the colonial era, the rebuilding of the continent in recent times, and contemporary art. Addressed are core, continent-wide themes in African visual and cultural expression, from the life cycle (children, initiation, motherhood, religion) to the body and representations of power dynamics. Important regional artistic expressions are also explored, such as the cultures of Mali (the Western Sudan), Nigeria (the lower Niger and Benue area), the Congo Basin, and various nomadic populations across the continent.

Written from an inclusive, modern perspective, focusing not only on royal traditions but also the broader global history of the continent and its artistic practices, this is an excellent introduction for students, museum visitors, and anyone with an interest in fine art, African history, and cultural studies.


This slim, chronological overview captures the vast richness of cultures across geography and time.

— The New York Times Book Review


Suzanne Preston Blier


Suzanne Preston Blier is an art historian, currently professor of fine arts and professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University, and a leading expert on African art, architecture, and culture. Her many books include A History of Art in Africa (coauthor), Royal Arts of Africa, Art and Risk in Ancient Yoruba, and The Image of the Black in African and Asian Art, with David Bindman and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.