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ART H 337 A: African Art And Society

We look forward to safely returning to in-person instruction and activities this autumn quarter. Current and prospective students please visit our COVID-19 Updates pages.
Meeting Time: 
MWF 2:30pm - 3:50pm
ART 317
Rene A Bravmann

Syllabus Description:

Art History 337

The Arts and Cultures of Africa- a look at the past and present



Rene A. Bravmann

School of Art, Office- 202

543-4876 (telephone);



Study Images


Student Presentations




This course attempts to introduce students to the rich art forms and cultural diversity found on the African continent. It approaches African creativity by examining it within specific geographical, historical and social contexts. Questions of form, meaning and symbolic behavior will be explored throughout the quarter. This term AH 337 will place particular emphasis upon the arts and cultures of Nigeria, on Nigerian artistry at home and in the diaspora.


Required Readings:

A selection of readings by art historians, anthropologists, reports from the New York Times and essays can be purchased from Professional Copy at 42nd and University Avenue. To obtain a set of the readings you must present your student ID card.


Format of the Course:

I will introduce each of the topics through lecture presentations that are illustrated with slides and/or films on Monday, Wednesday and a portion of the class on Friday. The rest of Friday's class will be devoted to a review of the lectures, readings, slides and films. I expect all members to come prepared to participate in these discussion sessions.


Class Requirements:

There will be two examinations and an oral presentation and short paper in this class. The lecture and paper assignment will be handed out on Wednesday of the 3rd week.

Both exams will consist of slide identifications, slide comparisons and contrasts, and essay questions based upon major issues raised by the course. (Grading: Your grade will be based upon the two exams (60%), presentation/paper (30%), and class participation (10%).


Course Calendar


Weeks One to Three

Introducing the arts of Africa. Listening to the thoughts and cautions of Profs. Appiah and Blier. Aminata Forna's documentary Through African Eyes- on approaching the arts of the continent. Something new always comes out of Africa- a striking exhibit of Mbembe sculptures at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, December 2014. Thinking about Africa through the history of Lagos, Nigeria- from humble Yoruba beginnings to an urbanism of the future- Lagos/Koolhaas. Nigeria's birth (1960), Biafra's death, and current tensions in "mighty Nigeria." The human costs of Nigeria's oil – Sweet Crude. Sokari Douglas-Camp honors the memory of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the devastation of the Niger Delta.


  1. Kwame Anthony Appiah, "Why Africa? Why Art?" pp.21-26 in T. Phillips, Africa: The Art of a Continent. 1995
  2. Suzanne P. Blier, "Africa, Art and History: an introduction" in (Visona, poyner and Cole) pp. 14-23.
  3. Holland Cotter, ‘Warriors and Mothers' New York Times, Dec. 18, 2014
  4. Kurt Vonnegut Jr., "Biafra: A People Betrayed"pp.139-158 in Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons (K. Vonnugut Jr.), 1972
  5. Okwui Enwezor and Olu Oguibe, "Lagos 1955-1970," pp.44-67, in Century City- Art and Culture in the Modern Metropolis, 2001.
  6. George Packer, "The Mega-City- Decoding the Chaos of Lagos", The New Yorker, November 13, 2006.
  7. Patrick Smith, "Sokari Douglas Camp: All the world is now richer", Africa Report, March 23, 2009.


Week Four

An impossibly fast tour of the arts and architecture of Africa. Art History on a grand scale – from 27,000 BCE to the present. Islamic Africa, on Jenne and Timbuktu- The Future of Mud. With only one assigned reading for the week this will be an ideal time for cohorts to get together and begin working on presentations.


                        1. Tom Phillips' Introduction, pp.11-20 to Africa: The Art of a Continent, 1995


Weeks Five and Six

Towards an Art History of Nigeria- looking at Nok, Ife, Owo and historic Yoruba Arts. Modern movements in Youbaland. Royal Benin art and the preciousness of Kings. Frank Speed's documentary Benin Kingship Ritual.


  1. The Arts of the Yoruba from early Ife to the present- A History of Art in Africa, (Visona, Poyner and Cole eds.) pp.228-256 and 264-271.
  2. The lower Niger (Visona, Poyner and Cole) pp.272-284


Mid-Term Examination


Week Seven

A further journey into the lower Niger region to look at Igbo Ukwu and the arts of the Igbo. The phenomenon of Mamy Wata in southern Nigeria and abroad. Yoruba art and spirituality in trans-Atlantic perspective.- David Byrne's Ile Aiye, the House of Life and Salvador da Bahia. Pierre   Gilberto Gil honors the work and life of Fatumbi Verger in Mensageiro entre Dois Mundos


  1. (Visona, Poyner and Cole eds.) pp. 284-302
  2. Robert Thomas Jr.- Pierre Verger obituary, New York Times, 2/20/1996
  3. S. Omari, "The Role of the Gods in Afro-Brazilian Ritual" pp.54-61 and 103 in African Arts 1989, vol.23. 


Week Eight                       

Contemporary Nigerian artistry- some thoughts on popular, workshop and art school trained artists. Balancing tradition and modernity- Nigerian Art-Kindred Spirits. The work of Ibrahim el Anatsui- a Ghanaian transplant in Nigeria exhibits at the Venice Biennial in Fold, Crumple and Crush. Nigerian artists abroad: looking at the work of Sokari Douglas-Camp and Rotimi Fani-Kayode. Yinka Shonibare challenges cultural assumptions and stereotypes in Illuminations 2004-2005.


  1. Simon Ottenberg, "El Anatsui- Colorful Woods and Dark Lines" pp. 155-180 in Ottenberg, New Traditions from Nigeria, 1997
  2. Olu Oguibe, "Finding a Place: Nigerian Artists in the Contemporary Art World; for better images see Art Journal, Summer 99, Vol.58 issue 2, pp.30-41 (Periodical Reserve Art Library).

Weeks Nine and Ten: The last two weeks of class will be devoted to student presentations. Details regarding this assignment will be handed out in class.

Catalog Description: 
Explores the ideas and notions expressed visually in sculpture, painting, ceramics, textiles, and architecture and describes their relationships to man and culture in Africa.
GE Requirements: 
Individuals and Societies (I&S)
Visual, Literary, and Performing Arts (VLPA)
Last updated: 
October 5, 2016 - 9:10pm