Artists’ Books and Africa: Unique Visions

By Janet Stanley

Unique Visions: The Exhibition

Since artists’ books are not normally associated with African art, our goal in this exhibition is to introduce the genre and survey its “African” manifestations.  The featured books are from the Smithsonian Libraries’ Warren M. Robbins Library at the National Museum of African Art and the National Museum of African Art collection.  They offer the full span from illustrated nineteenth-century atlas folios to livres d’artistes to twenty-first century artists’ books.

In accord with the Smithsonian’s mission of “valuing world cultures,” this exhibition presents Africa in books of artistry and imagination.  The forms and structures of these artists’ books blend with a stunning range of African themes explored by both African and international artists.

What Are Artists’ Books?

Artists’ books resist definition.  To avoid getting tangled up in definitions, let’s just invoke the tautology that an artist’s book is a book made by an artist that the artist calls an artist’s book.  Artists’ books build on the traditional codex form of sequential bound pages, but they expand and push those boundaries in limitless creative ways.  There may be texts and words, or not.  Most importantly, they are intended as a visual art work.

Artists’ books may be limited editions produced by fine art presses or may be inexpensive “democratic multiples,” often with a political or social message, distributed cheaply or freely.  They may be produced entirely by the artist or may be collaborative projects with paper makers, printers, typesetters, binders, poets, and other specialists.  Frequently, the primary book construction material is paper, but artists’ books are made of any material—cloth, plastic, metal, glass, wood, leather.  Artists’ books are often produced on old letterpress, technology no longer used by mainstream publishing.  Or they may be entirely hand-made.

With artists’ books the structure and format may be privileged over content.  Others argue that the physical properties of the artist’s book are so intimately integral with the content that all must be considered together.  The visual and tactile qualities are primary, as it is after all a three-dimensional or even sculptural artifact.  The intimacy in one’s handling, turning pages, or unfolding flaps of an artist’s book is central to the experience.  According to Johanna Drucker, “An artist’s book may succeed on the strength of its formal qualities or on the compelling vision of its meaning, but the best artists’ books are those which integrate production and content so dynamically that such distinctions are moot.” [1]

How Do We Read Artists’ Books?

Ideally, an artist’s book invites an intimate experience between the reader and the book.  How is the artist’s imagination reflected in the book?  With an artist’s book, the experience is heightened because of its artistry, its tactile qualities, and its sheer unexpectedness.  The multiple formats of artists’ books challenge the reader to engage with the object in hand.  What is it made of?  How is it constructed?  How is it bound or enclosed?  How does one move through the book?  What will the next page reveal?  Artists’ books play with the codex format in a variety of fanciful ways.  They may offer several pathways to explore.  That is their charm or whimsy or beauty.

History of Artists’ Books: The Precursors

The Artists’ Illustrated Books

Artists’ illustrated books (livres d’artistes) are book works with art or art and text produced by a press or publisher.  Often these are limited fine art editions and may be initiated by the publisher or author, not the artist.  They are conventional in format—the traditional codex or portfolio—and in binding.  This genre appeared early in the twentieth century and continues today.   The Ultimate Safari in our exhibition is an example of an artist’s illustrated book.  The Artist’s Press in South Africa initiated the project, which is based on a story by Nadine Gordimer, and commissioned Aletah Masuku, Alsetah Manthosi, and Dorah Ngomane to illustrate it.  More poignantly, as real characters in the tale of flight, displacement and deprivation, these three women illustrated their own experiences of the ultimate safari.

The ultimate safari by Nadine Gordimer ; with original hand-printed lithographs by Aletah Masuku, Alsetah Manthosi, and Dorah Ngomane, 2001. Signed Masuku. African Art Museum artists' books exhibit research image.

The Bruce Onobrakpeya Portfolio of Art and Literature, containing twenty-seven original prints enclosed in a hand-made leather case, is another example of an artist’s illustrated book.  Why?  Although Nigerian artist Onobrakpeya initiated and solely executed this handsome collection of prints illustrating excerpts of African literature, it is still a conventional portfolio of prints.

Bruce Onobrakpeya portfolio of art and literature by Bruce Onobrakpeya, 2003. Plate 1 Kurmin Rukiki. African Art Museum artists' books exhibit research image.

The distinction between artists’ books and artists’ illustrated books may lie in the eye of the beholder as much as in formal definitions.  Both offer the readers pleasurable visual and tactile experiences.

Nineteenth-century Folios

Moving back to the mid-nineteenth century, one finds even earlier fine art books of a different nature.  Oversized (elephant or atlas)[2] folios, finely illustrated, such as John James Audubon’s books of birds, were typically scientific and scholarly works, intended for a very specialized audience, both because of their cost and subject matter.  What is innovative about these nineteenth-century books is not the venerable codex format, but the high quality of production which employed the most advanced printing technology of the time.  The capability of making very large sheets of wood pulp paper, the introduction of roller printers, and the improvements in chromolithography resulted in magnificent works of craftsmanship.  These atlas folios often have beautiful chromolithographs or aquatint prints.

The example from the Smithsonian’s Warren M. Robbins Library is the magisterial twelve volume Denkmaeler aus Aegypten und Aethiopien,[3] which documents a Prussian archaeological expedition to the Nile Valley in the 1840s.  The illustrations are meticulously accurate renderings of the murals and hieroglyphs in Egyptian tombs as well as stunning views of monuments and landscapes of the Egyptian and Sudanese deserts.

Denkmaeler aus Aegypten und Aethiopien by C.R. Lepsius, circa 1849-1856, twelve volumen set. Abth. III Band 6 Bl.135 Theben Bab el Meluk, Grab Sethos I. Raum D, Dyn. XIX. African Art Museum artists' books exhibit research image.

Denkmaeler aus Aegypten und Aethiopien by C.R. Lepsius, circa 1849-1856, twelve volumen set. Abth. Band 4 Bl.141, Benihassan, Grab 1, Dyn. XII. African Art Museum artists' books exhibit research image.

Or, George French Angas’s Kafirs Illustrated [4] with hand-colored lithographs of South African landscapes and spectacular depictions of Zulu, Pondo, and Cape Malay people.  Angas based his lithographs on first-hand observation through his painting and sketches.

The Kafirs illustrated by George French Angas, original 1849, facsimile 1974. Two of King Panda's Dancing Girls. African Art Museum artists' books exhibit research image.

The Real Artist’s Book

Artists’ books are essentially a twentieth-century art form, which have been around since the 1960s.  American Ed Ruscha and German-Swiss Dieter Roth are often credited with launching this genre.  One of the reasons that artists’ books are difficult to pin down is that they intersect with other twentieth-century art movements, such as conceptual art, pop art, Futurism, or Fluxus.  These intersections or overlapping fields of activity are what Johanna Drucker calls contact zones.  But not all artists’ books are tied to an avant-garde art movement.[5]  The genre of artists’ books has taken off in the last two decades as book arts generally have been more widely introduced into art school curricula, especially in North America and Europe.   Previously hand-made books were regarded as craft.  More book artists, more dealers, more collectors, and now international book arts fairs are propelling and energizing this arena of creativity.

Artists’ Books in Africa and Africa in Artists’ Books

Contemporary artists’ books have found a foothold in South Africa, but not really elsewhere on the continent.  One explanation is that art schools in Africa do not include books arts in the teaching program.  Excluding South Africa, the African artists who have taken up artists’ books are those who study or work overseas where they are exposed to this genre.  Toufik Berramdane (Morocco), Atta Kwami (Ghana), Rachid Koraïchi (Algeria), Hassan Musa (Sudan), Abdoulaye Ndoye (Senegal), and Otobong Edet Nkanga (Nigeria) come to mind.  Most of the African artists in this exhibition are experimenters with artists’ books.  It is not their primary medium.  In South Africa book arts flourish.

Nadimé : approche du derviche-tourneur en dix lithographies by Toufik Berramdane with text of Frédéric Brandon, 1992. Raised Arms Dervish. African Art Museum artists' books exhibit research image.

No be today story o! by Otobong Nkanga, 2010. Loss in Bubbles  LtoR 02. African Art Museum artists' books exhibit research image.


With Grace Kwami Sculpture, Atta Kwami evokes an accordion-fold book with leaves that unfold to resemble the dramatic eight-legged spider Ananse, the trickster of folklore.  Each of the spider’s “legs” is illustrated on both sides with images of his mother and her artworks.  Accordion books mimic the sound box of the musical instrument by folding up tight or extending to their full extent.  Peter Clarke’s Bits and Pieces is an accordion-fold book made from envelopes and other scraps of paper, which can be scrunched up or stretched out.

Flip books have pages with sequential shifting images creating a primitive animation.  These are often regarded as novelty items or children’s books.  South African William Kentridge’s Curs practic de gramática Catalana superimposes his self-portrait man with the brimmed hat onto the pages of a 1933 Catalan grammar.  Then he printed facsimiles of the original pages with his drawings on them.  As you flip through the pages, you see the naked man standing ankle-deep in a puddle of water with a hat floating by.  He leans over, picks up the hat, and puts it on.  Then he gradually dresses, ending up fully suited with coat and tie, but still standing in the puddle of water.  On the cover, he has superimposed the brimmed hat.

Pop-up books are familiar as children’s books, though they have a venerable more serious history. [6]  Dolls of Africa by American Freya Diamond is a simple, whimsical pop-up, revealing a panoply of beaded and bedecked cut-out dolls, borrowing from African dolls.

Dolls of Africa by Freya Diamond, 2011. Pop Up. African Art Museum artists' books exhibit research image.

Exquisite corpse books share with pop-ups whimsy and the unexpected, but with more options for reader interaction.  You can mix and match parts of the “exquisite corpse” body to create your own composite body somewhat like the 1940s children’s toy Changeable Charlie, with wooden blocks depicting faces.  Take eyes from one face, forehead from another, and ears, eyebrows, mouths, chins, and noses from others to make your own exquisite corpse.   The exquisite corpse Emandulo: Re-Creation is a collaborative work of several artists each making a print on the same theme of the creation myth (Emandulo means creation—“in the beginning”—in Zulu).  Each artist’s print of identical size depicts two human figures, separated by a vertical cut and then cut horizontally into thirds—heads, torsos, and legs.  The number of combinations is staggering!  

Familiar alphabet books decorate letters of the alphabet.  A variation on alphabet books plays with initial letters – those enlarged illustrated letters that begin a paragraph or chapter of a book.  Brazilian artist Amir Brito Cadôr’s O Livros dos Seres Imaginarios is a riff on Jorge Luis Borges’ The Book of Imaginary Beings.  Instead of initial letters alone, the artist drops in an imaginary being, overlaying the letter.  These mask-like initials dominate the page, as all text is grayed out, and we are left with only the masked letter.

O livro dos seres imaginários by Amir Brito Cadôr and Daniela Maura, 2011.  Display View (spread sheets). African Art Museum artists' books exhibit research image.

Page layouts and typefaces.  Pages of different shapes and sizes and folded pages are common features in artists’ books and provide interest for the reader by offering different ways of navigating through a work.  American Bessie Smith Moulton’s Tunisia invites a tour across the landscape and history of this desert country, through pages of differing sizes, showing multiple views.  Susan Allix also uses pages of varying size and weight in Egyptian Green.  Layering and cut-outs in pages add depth and visual interest.  The South African Contribution to Mari-Mira uses color transparencies, layered to build up or break down elements of the complete picture.  Images appear and disappear as pages are turned.  One set of prints in What’s Bred in the Stone uses cut-out shapes of the menorah, the cross, and the crescent to reveal the image on the next page and, when turned, the image behind it.

Egyptian green : views from Egypt with the writing of Amelia Edwards, Herodotus, Catullus, ancient coffin texts & various other descriptions by Susan Allix, 2003. Cairo. African Art Museum artists' books exhibit research image.

With Moulton’s Tunisia the artist also combines several fonts and hand-writing to visually add to the experience.  British artist Willow Legge’s An African Folktale, “Why the Sun and the Moon Live in the Sky,” artistically allows the text to curve across the pages in harmony with the sea waves, amidst embossed sea creatures.

Tunisia by Bessie Smith Moulton, 2003. St Expuery.African Art Museum artists' books exhibit research image.

Egyptian Green by British book artist Susan Allix is a tour-de-force of mixing typefaces and text layout in an extraordinarily evocative manner.  In one image of a gently billowing curtain in a semi-dark Cairene interior, the words similarly lift off the page as if waving in the breeze.

Egyptian green : views from Egypt with the writing of Amelia Edwards, Herodotus, Catullus, ancient coffin texts & various other descriptions by Susan Allix, 2003. Curtain. African Art Museum artists' books exhibit research image.

Altered books start with an existing book which the artist adds to, subtracts from, or otherwise creatively transforms.  Kentridge’s flip book Curs Practic de Gramática Catalana (mentioned above) is also an altered book, because he draws on selected pages of an existing grammar book, thus altering it.  Abdoulaye Ndoye’s art books often start with a bound blank book rather than a published book.  He treats the pages with henna cover to cover and then draws with ink and crayon on each page, creating a unique book.

Unusual bindings or enclosures of artists’ books are integral parts of the artistry of the whole work, drawing you in to examine the contents more closely.  Looking at Guy du Toit’s bronze hoof attached to a smooth blond wood slip case crafted by Michael Zeffertt entices you to pull out the enclosed book of South African prints in GIF 2.

The book The Artist Nani Croze in Africa has covers of stiff heavy cardboard bolted together with two large metal nuts and bolts.  Ordinary material cleverly deployed.   Luan Nel’s tiny corrugated cardboard box, which holds a deck of cards, could hardly be more modest.

Paper : an installation by Luan Nel at the Mark Coetzee Fine Art Cabinet, by Luan Nel, 1997. Top cover. African Art Museum artists' books exhibit research image.

Multi-part books invite the reader to open the box or case and remove the different parts, discovering how they all fit together and what stories they conceal.  For example, Listen, Listen: Adadam Agofomma: Honoring the Legacy of Koo Nimo by American book artist Mary Hark and Atta Kwami is comprised of three hand-made paper booklets, a folder enclosing three original etchings, and a DVD all nestled in a hand-made mulberry pulp clamshell box.  Otobong Nkanga’s No Be Today Story O! consists of a translucent envelope which you open to pull out four story-prints folded and concealed inside.

Listen, listen : Adadam Agofomma : honoring the legacy of Koo Nimo by Mary Hark, 2011. Full spread. African Art Museum artists' books exhibit research image.

Photography is a widespread medium in artists’ books, often altered in some way or presented along with other media, such as prints or drawings.  Artists’ books using photography are a kind of photobook—that is, a book where the essential information is conveyed through a collection of photographic images—but not all photobooks are artists’ books.  In Blake J. Nolan’s Colored People, black-and-white photographs taken in the Cameroon have been partially hand-colored.  The people in the photos are colored, but the background remains black-and-white, a double entendre of the title “colored people.” [7]

Colored people by Blake J. Nolan, 2008. Woman in Green. African Art Museum artists' books exhibit research image.


Some artists may conduct in-depth research into a subject before even conceptualizing the physical book.  Keith Dietrich’s Fourteen Stations of the Cross or Pippa Skotnes’s Sound from the Thinking Strings both demonstrate serious study of serious subjects—with Dietrich, the early footprints of European missionaries implanting the cross in southern Africa with Skotnes, the destruction of the civilization of the San people and the fragility of collective memory.

Some artists’ books are personal or autobiographical.  Otobong Nkanga’s No Be Today Story, O!, Nani Croze’s The Artist Nani Croze in Africa, and Atta Kwami’s tribute to his mother in Grace Kwami Sculpture are examples of real-life stories as artists’ books.

Poetry and folk tales, illustrated by artists, are frequently the starting point for artistic books.  The poem “Skoelapperheuwel, Skoelappervrou” (“Butterfly Hill, Butterfly Woman”) by Wilma Stockenström is visually interpreted by Judith Mason in the book of the same title.  “Why the Sun and the Moon Live in the Sky,” an Efik tale, is imaginatively illustrated by Willow Legge in An African Folktale.  With Bruce Onobrakpeya’s portfolio of prints, each illustrates an excerpt from African literature.

Bruce Onobrakpeya portfolio of art and literature by Bruce Onobrakpeya, 2003. Plate 24 Smoke. African Art Museum artists' books exhibit research image.

Yet, an artist’s book need not have any story and may just be a beautiful and intriguing hand-made object.  Peter Clarke’s Bits and Pieces is one such book, simply whimsical and engaging.

Learn more about Artists' Books at the Smithsonian on our Smithsonian Libraries Artists' Books Collection webpage.

Here is a summary of themes chosen by the artists in our exhibition:

[1]  Johanna Drucker, The Century of Artists’ Books.  2nd edition.  (New York: Granary Books, 2004), page 359.

[2]  Oversized folios are designated by size.  Elephant folios are up to 23 inches in height; atlas folios are up to 25 inches.

[3]  Denkmaeler aus Aegypten und Aethiopien (Berlin: Nicolaische Buchhandlung, 1849-1856).

[4]  George French Angas, Kafirs Illustrated (London: Published by J. Hogarth, 1849; reprinted Cape Town, Amsterdam: Balkema, 1974).  Today the word kafir is an offensive ethnic slur for blacks in South Africa.  Deriving from the Arabic word meaning infidel, it was adopted by Portuguese explorers to refer to black non-Muslim peoples involved in the Arab slave trade along the coast of East Africa.

[5]  The best history of artists’ books is Johanna Drucker’s A Century of Artists’ Books.   (New York: Granary Books, 1995).   The first chapter, “The Artist’s Book as Idea and Form” is available here,%20TCofAB,%20Chpt.%201.pdf

[6]  The Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt Library’s 2010  book exhibition Paper Engineering: Fold, Pull, Pop, and Turn explored the history of pop-ups,

[7]  The title Colored People is also a reference to the earlier works of the same title by Ed Ruscha and Adrian Piper, both of which influenced Blake’s and his collaborators’ vision.