From Acacia Trees And Sunsets To Modern Book Cover Art: The Evolution Of Book Covers In Africa

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There is an undeniable truth in identifying book covers as pieces of art. They are simply extended forms of visual art which began traditionally or digitally and have become a part of an entirely different form: literary art. The combination of these art forms create an even greater effect than they do separately, as the initial appreciation of a book cover contributes to how a book is first perceived. If the same book proceeds to be an underwhelming piece of work, it takes nothing from the book cover because it has carried out its main purpose. 

Over the past century, the African literary scene has experienced major developments in the manner paperback books are presented. There has been a significant shift from the famous acacia trees adorned on almost every book cover to the more abstract and picturesque book covers seen nowadays. Focusing mainly on Nigeria, we track the developments made in African book cover art and consider the reason for the shift. 


The History of Paperback Books 

During the colonial days, the literary industry in Nigeria was saturated with textbooks and religious materials written and published by Britons, centered on content that promoted their exploitative mission. Unsurprisingly, this translated to the inexistence of literature written by Nigerians from their own perspective.

Asides from the lack of interest the British had in Nigerians unique voices, except to completely encroach on it, they believed it was a financial risk to publish literature written by Africans because there was no apparent market for it. This misconception was then recognized after the successful publication of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in 1958 by William Heinemann, leading to the establishment of the African Writers Series (AWS) by Heinemann Educational Books in 1962. It aimed to provide high-quality, cheap paperback series exclusively written by black African authors to Africa. The AWS went on to publish over 300 books including books authored by acclaimed authors like Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and Mariama Bâ. It also produced three Nobel Prize for Literature winners; Wole Soyinka in 1986, Naguib Mahfouz 1988, and Nadine Gordimer in 1991.  

Unfortunately for the Nigerian Publishing industry, AWS suffered a decline in the 80s due to a change in management and an economic crisis across the continent. The role AWS once played was unsustainable and impossible to replicate by other publishing houses or independent publishing, and although significantly different than before, a gap in the publishing industry in Nigeria started to emerge. 

In this century, Publishing houses like Masobe, Kachifo, Parresia, Narrative Landscape and more have taken the helm in publishing African literature to champion the mission of amplifying the stories written by Africans. Although still strife with significant challenges, the publishing industry in Africa is led by people who have a personal interest in the stories we see as it reflects our perspective.


Book Covers in Late 1900

The books published under the AWS were known for their specific appearance which was inspired by the Penguin Book colour code where the colour orange was for fiction, blue for biography and politics, brown for poetry, and green for plays. As a result of AWS’s propensity for fictional novels, their imprint was mainly associated with the colour orange. 

Image: Bookshybooks

Another noticeable pattern in AWS’s book covers was the use of illustrations. These illustrations often took on a primitive look, which suggested a limited use of imagination. However, for a budding industry, as it was, these book covers would have been remarkable and exciting to its consumers. In this article John Mcphee defends their use of the images, saying they were carefully chosen to match the content of the book and undeniably, the periods the books were created. 

The AWS book style developed from illustration to photographs in 1971 when George Hallet, a photographer fleeing from the South African apartheid joined the London AWS team. Although illustrations were still created, the program’s aesthetic was substantially altered as photography dominated the book covers.  

Image: Bookshybooks


From Acacia Trees and Sunsets. 

The 2000s have been a very interesting one for books “about Africa” or written by Africans. In the early 2000s, although the publishing industry in Nigeria was still in a stage of nascency, books were being produced about Africa en mass in Britain and America. Consequently, their biases and uninspired understanding of African stories bled into the covers being made, and the stereotypes were heavily emboldened on each book, regardless of what the content was. As long as it was African, there was an acacia tree with a sunset. 

Image: Simon Stevens

In 2014, Historian Simon Stevens drew attention to the stereotypical use of these elements in books about Africa. This resulted in discussions on the repetitious way Africa was represented. In agreement with his observation, Elliot Ross wrote “In short, the covers of most novels “about Africa” seem to have been designed by someone whose principal idea of the continent comes from The Lion King.” which accurately summed up the ignorance affecting the creators of the covers. Book covers were being made with little to no understanding of the beauty of Africa, and sadly were not interested in learning about it. Unlike the similarities between AWS covers which could be justified by the desire to create an easily identifiable brand, slapping a sunset and tree on a book cover was lazy and lacklustre, boasting of no desire to stand out. 

In an interview with Dr Eghosa Imasuen, the Director of Business Development at Narrative Landscape Press, he distinguished between books created by Africans and by Westerners, and attributed the prevalence of these stereotypes to the west’s perception of the continent. Generally, a number of books created within the continent by Africans do not exude the same blatant vibe as those created by Westerners. However, even in books published by Africans, there is the evident factor or theme that allows one to guess an African book in a lineup of books produced in other countries. This similarity is found in the use of bold colours, abstract images, sculptures, nature/trees and much more. In response to the “Africanism” manifested in these covers, Coco Anetor Sokei, managing editor at Kachifo explains that “if the story has a strong African theme, the cover will likely reflect that. Here in Africa, we draw inspiration from our surroundings and our culture. We try to modernise, but we write what we know and design what we know.”

This should be distinguished from the clichés of acacia trees mentioned above because there is a clear distinction between reproducing the same covers in different forms and making use of elements common in the continent. Hence, in this case, the presence of these themes cannot be entirely erased or viewed in a negative light in favour of trends set by others. 


To Modern Book Covers. 

This shift book covers have made is also a result of the change in times. Not only are people becoming more experimental with the stories and visuals they create, but there has also been a massive development in technology. This is perhaps the single most important shift that has affected African book covers. Dr Imasuen points out thattaste has always been universal but the covers look more appealing because the tools are increasingly democratised. People can use them to create beautiful things now.” He goes on to say  “even then there were brilliant covers and people took their time to create these covers. For example, African Night Entertainment covers that seemed horrid were artworks of Bruce Onobrakpeya. Those are pieces of art and no matter how ugly you thought those covers were, if you look at them now you realise that this was not a joke.” 

The lack of tools was a hindrance to the quality of book covers created in those years. Even with other types of technology like mobile phones, the advancement in recent times has been impressive. Technology makes what was previously impossible, possible.

Except marred by financial constraints, access to technology creates limitless possibilities for creating book covers. Now the industry has better access to sources, free pictures, software like InDesign, Colour Draw, Canva and more recently AI generated images. Even the printing quality has developed from predominately matte covers to a more glossy and vibrant feel. The impact of better technology can also be evidenced through first editions and newer editions of books. 

Regardless of the “African Elements” mentioned previously still being noticeable in book covers, recent times have seen a major shift to more modern types of book covers, of which books published in Africa are difficult to tell apart from editions published by British or American imprints. 

Left: by Riverheads Books, Right: by Farafina Books

Joy Chime, Assistant Editor at Narrative Landscape Press explains to Culture Custodian that “People are insisting they won’t be locked into a single story, and even when you have African authors who are first published abroad, by the time the Nigerian editions of these books are being published, you find that there is a desire to not be locked into ‘oh this is the UK edition that’s why the cover is so much better, this is the Nigerian edition, that’s why it looks like ‘screp’.” Creators on the continent are being more experimental with the covers they produce. They are pushing boundaries across what is expected of them to the extent that mind-blowing art is now becoming the norm in the continent. 

African book cover art has changed drastically from the “primitive” and “unimagined” forms shown in the AWS era, and cliches of the early 2000s to the modern and inspiring covers seen today. Not only is this a result of experimental and boundary-pushing creators, but there has also been an advancement in technology and increased access to the same. Finding talent has never been the problem but the lack of easily accessible tools and finances have served as a hindrance heir production. These days, that’s a problem that’s being overcome.


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