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The 7 Best Coffee Table Books Highlighting African Art and Design


Coffee table books serve many purposes. The massive photography books are most popularly used to add color or texture to an, otherwise, bare coffee table. They also provide idle guests with reading materials to keep occupied during extended waiting periods and artists with coveted gifts to unwrap at Christmas. Aside from its ornamental and entertaining purposes, coffee table books serve as a historical and cultural index that captures time, community movements, and heritage through photography and supporting text.    

For those of you itching to travel, or simply wanting to cultivate your mind, these coffee table books serve as a great way to learn about something new. Over the last decade, dozens of coffee table books have been produced that document Africa and the diaspora’s contemporary fashion, art, architecture, design, and photography producers. Whether highlighting the works of photographer Kwame Brathwaite in Brooklyn or architect David Adjaye in Ghana, the coffee table books documenting Black people and culture have been a much-needed source of inspiration. 

Coffee table books have the ability to transport you from your comfortable living room into a time or place that you have yet to discover. These books are also giving previously overlooked African artists the ability to solidify their legacies within the confines of big white pages and bookstores around the world. If you are looking for the best books to inspire your next creative project or mood board, grab your coffee and dig into our list of favorites.


Africa Rising: From Fashion, Design and Lifestyle by Clara Le Fort

Africa Rising: Fashion, Design and Lifestyle from Africa by Clara Le Fort  

Africa Rising showcases work from numerous skyrocketing African creatives across the continent’s bubbling metropolises in the fields of design, fashion, photography and architecture. This coffee table book calls popular stereotypes and archaic clichés into question. Inside its pages, comprehensive portraits include Peter Mabeo’s furniture collection made from indigenous woods, Nobukho Nqaba’s photography on migration and foreigners, David Adjaye’s architecture practice, Selly Raby Kane’s electric fashion label and Spoek Mathambo’s afro-electronica album, which is comprised of Bantu lyrics over computerized beats. Essays by experts and artisans contextualise each portrait, providing insight into how these talented people and their projects can drive future social and economic developments. Co-edited by Design Indaba, a South African design platform, Africa Rising invokes inspiration over the richness of artistic creation in Africa.


African Modernism: The Architecture of Independence by Manuel Herz

African Modernism: The Architecture of Independence by Manuel Herz

African Modernism is one of the first books to take a close look at the cutting-edge architectural projects of over 100 buildings and the processes of nation building in Ghana, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, and Zambia after their independence in the 1960s and 1970s. Documenting over 700 photographs by Iwan Baan and Alexia Webster, the book offers insightful analysis by Swiss-based architect and historian Manuel Herz. Most of these new republics governments wanted to express their newly established national identity through distinctive avant-garde architecture. Parliament buildings, stadiums, universities, central banks, convention centers, and other major public buildings and housing projects were built in daring, even heroic designs—markers of the bright future these nations envisioned after independence.


African Catwalk by Per-Anders Pettersson

African Catwalk by Per-Anders Pettersson 

Swedish native and South Africa-based photographer, Per-Anders Pettersson, is known for award-winning news reports on the Congo’s civil war and South Africa’s transition to democracy after apartheid. However, after an assignment for the burgeoning middle class in South Africa led him to his first fashion week, Pettersson found a new interest in documenting fashion. He continued documenting fashion weeks across Africa and became a fixture at the shows. His years of backstage photography gave birth to most of the content displayed in his book African Catwalk. Photographed in 16 countries between 2010 and 2015, the book reflects Pettersson's interest in the rapid growth of Africa's creative industries. His images artfully illustrate familiar runway moments: models glued to their cellphones backstage, frantic tailors adjusting loose inseams, and more fashion magic.


Black Refractions Highlights from the Studio Museum in Harlem by Connie H. Choi, Thelma Golden, Kellie Jones

Black Refractions: The Studio Museum in Harlem by Connie Choi

This beautiful book is an authoritative guide by Harlem's Studio Museum curator Connie Choi. From Romare Bearden to Kehinde Wiley, the book showcases a century of creative work by major artists of African descent. The Studio Museum, since its founding in 1968, has been a nexus for African artists to gather for groundbreaking exhibitions and artist residencies. Black Refractions traces 125 works of different formats, from the 1930s to present times, emphasizing the plurality of the African diaspora narrative.


Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power by Mark Godfrey

Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power by Mark Godfrey 

With over 170 striking images of artwork featured in Tate Modern's famed exhibition of the same name, the coffee table book, Soul of a Nation, surveys the crucial period from 1963 to 1983 for young black artists. At the beginning of their careers, many creatives such as Sam Gilliam and Charles White confronted difficult questions about art, politics and racial identity, and their role in tying it all together. Accompanied by essays from the senior curator of International Art at the Tate Modern in London, Mark Godfrey, light is shed on these pivotal black artists of this era and their place in Art History.


'Black Light' photography by Kehinde Wiley

'Black Light' Photographs by Kehinde Wiley

Los Angeles native and New-York based visual artist Kehinde Wiley is known for his grandiose and vibrant portraits of African American men posing in renaissance inspired landscapes. Black Light documents Wiley’s extraordinary talent of applying historical visual conventions of glorification and wealth to subject matters drawn from urban social fabric. His images come across as heroic and majestic. It’s no wonder that he was called upon to paint President Obama’s official portrait.


Black is Beautiful by Kwame Brathwaite

Black is Beautiful by Kwame Brathwaite 
Kwame Brathwaite is a Brooklyn native photographer known for documenting the “Black is Beautiful” movement in the 1950s and 70s. This movement encouraged Black people to accept and celebrate their natural features. His artistic legacy was celebrated at Los Angeles' Skirball Cultural Center’s exhibition featuring over 40 images of his work. The models he photographed wore their hair in natural styles - mostly afros - and wore Afrocentric fashions as a challenge to the era’s monolithic Eurocentric beauty standards. The model on the cover of the book is a Kwame’s wife, Sikolo, wearing a beaded crown as a node to African culture.


Written by Christine Noumba Um