Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 8, 2003
Monica Blackmun Visonà, Robin Poyner, Herbert M. Cole, Michael D. Harris, Rowland Abiodun, and Suzanne Preston Blier A History of Art in Africa Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Prentice Hall in association with Harry N. Abrams, 2001. 544 pp.; 129 color ills.; 600 b/w ills. Cloth $85.00 (0810934485)
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A History of Art in Africa is the product of two decades of research and writing by a team of scholars who represent Africanist art historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, and other teachers of African visual culture in the United States. Led by Monica Visonà and Robin Poynor, the team includes Herbert M. Cole and Michael D. Harris. The book is intended to be a general undergraduate text on African art and so fills a gap that has plagued Africanists for years. Until recently, they were forced by the lack of such a book to make do with occasional exhibition catalogues and scores of photocopied articles for survey courses on African art. While the situation has improved considerably with the appearance of texts such as Judith Perani and Fred Smith’s The Visual Arts of Africa: Gender, Power, and Life Cycle Rituals (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1998) and Christopher Roy and Lee McIntyre’s CD-ROM, Art and Life in Africa: Recontextualizing African Art in the Cycle of Life (Iowa City: The Art and Life in Africa Project, 1998), this book is the most comprehensive African art survey to date. Apart from covering most of the art of the continent, it includes a chapter on African Diaspora art.

The book follows in its plan the geographical arrangement that has been standard in the field for decades: there are sections on West, Central, Eastern, and Southern Africa. It is unusual, however, in that it also has chapters on the art of the Sahara, Maghreb, and early Nile cultures. By so doing, the authors make a bold statement, challenging the tendency in some academic circles to isolate these areas from sub-Saharan Africa, in spite of their geographical, historical, and cultural ties. They also lay claim to ancient Egypt and Muslim Africa as the territory of the Africanist art historian. It is now well known that northern Africa, especially ancient Egypt, once served as a bridge between sub-Saharan African cultures and those of the Mediterranean, Europe, and beyond. Indeed, the more closely one examines African and ancient Egyptian art, the deeper one’s awareness of their common roots in prehistory becomes. I recall with some fondness two of my senior and now deceased colleagues who came to me after a trip to a conference in Philadelphia and said, “Chris, we heard a scholar actually claim that Egypt is part of Africa.” What a radical idea! How shocking!

In short, this is a groundbreaking work. The book is divided into fifteen chapters. Seven of them—on the Sahara and Maghreb; Nubia and Ethiopia; Central Sudan; Mande Worlds and the Upper Niger; West Atlantic Forests; Eastern Africa; and Southern Africa—were written by Visonà; four—covering Yoruba and the Fon; Cross River, Cameroon Grasslands, and Gabon; Western Congo Basin; and Eastern Congo Basin—by Poynor; three—on the Western Sudan; Akan; and Eastern Nigeria—by Cole; and one—about African Diaspora art—by Harris. The quality of the text is excellent. The authors have obviously devoted enormous time and efforts to mining the scholarly literature on African art, making good use of the works of researchers from art history, anthropology, history, languages, and other disciplines. There are serious problems, though, with decisions taken by the authors regarding the amount of space for specific cultural traditions. They did not provide any justification for devoting twenty pages to the art of the Igbo or eight pages to Dahomey, when only four pages are assigned to the Lega and two to the very important women’s art of the Mende. However, each chapter is well illustrated. While many of the images are familiar, there are a number of surprises. Worth mentioning are remarkable pieces from East Africa that had remained unpublished for decades until their inclusion in a series of exhibitions on the art of this geographical area recently held in Europe and the United States. The authors must be commended for locating excellent photographs in European archives, and for soliciting photographs from the scholars on whose research they depend. These illustrations enrich the text, helping readers to understand better how the objects were employed in their original contexts. There are striking field photographs of Yoruba Egungun masks representing a European couple (256) taken by Marilyn Houlberg; an Igbo Mgbedike mask surrounded by attendants (293) taken by the late English colonial officer G. I. Jones; and three Zambian Chewa straw and fiber masks (485) taken by Laurel Aguilar (485), to name only a few. A review of all the field photographs in the book reveals that those made by researchers are much more informative than those by professional photographers. Nevertheless, all the field photographs clearly show that Africa continues to be a continent of fabulous cultural and artistic riches. If I have any complaint it is that too many of the useful photos are printed the size of postage stamps. There are 729 illustrations, including 129 plates in full color; but even with so many, some of the plates should have been larger to enhance their pictorial and educational values.

One other laudable aspect of the book is that each chapter includes examples of contemporary art from each culture or country covered, thus enabling the reader to relate the past to the present. There are also sections throughout the book on contemporary art for “the international market,” ranging from Iba N’Diaye’s painting La Ronde: A Qui le Tour (1970) to Cheri Samba’s canvas Mobali Ya Monyato (1989) and Magdalene Odundo’s magnificent pottery.

When considered along with the prehistoric rock paintings of the Saharan Tassili that date to ca. 8000 B.C., the chronological scope of the book is ten thousand years, giving African art a chronological depth hardly equaled in other parts of the world. The inclusion of the Saharan material reflects the very positive changes that have occurred in the discipline over the years. The study of African art has come a long way from the early efforts that simply identified objects by culture of origin, style, and significance. It is now widely recognized that contemporary African art forms a continuum with the more “traditional” imagery that captivated Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, and other European modernists at the turn of the twentieth century. It is now widely acknowledged that contemporary African art is emphatically not “European art done badly,” as some scholars once assumed. The point is that contemporary African artists are using new materials, techniques, and forms to express many of the same concerns that their ancestors faced in the past; their solutions may be different, but they are just as brilliant.

Teachers and students of African art will especially be pleased with Harris’s chapter on “Art of the African Diaspora.” It is an impressive and well-illustrated overview of the creative output of artists of African descent in the Americas. The author draws attention not only to artistic innovations and the various syntheses of African and Western influences in architecture, musical instruments, quilting, painting, sculpture, pottery and fashion design, but also to the use of the resulting hybridity to project new identities. Certainly, one cannot justify the study of African art solely on the ground that it has flourished in the Americas since the period of the slave trade. Yet the inclusion of this chapter opens new doors for those interested in comparative analysis, among other methods of study.

On the whole, this is an excellent undergraduate text, long in planning and writing, much anticipated, and much appreciated. It is boldly conceived and well edited. The authors are to be congratulated on their scholarship and hard work. I do hope that the publisher will ensure that the book stays in print long enough to educate several generations of students.

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.