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2074 Module Reading List

African Art I: Context Representation Signification, 2021/22, Semester 2
Will Rea
Tutor information is taken from the Module Catalogue

Week 1.  


This week is a general introduction to the key themes of African art. 


General Introduction & Key Texts 

  • Willet F  African art, London: Thames and Hudson. – The original and to some extent still the best.     
  • Vansina 1984 Art history in Africa. London: Longmans – an interesting number of differing models and perspectives 

More problematically:  







Week 2. Art/Artefact & Aesthetic Field 


It might seem as if the imposition upon Africa of ideas of Fine Art as they emerge through the 18th century in Europe is very much part of the legacy of primitivism. Yet, not only is there no such thing as a (unified/timeless) "western conception of art," the consensus among philosophers of art in the "west" is that the definition of art depends upon the aesthetic field, ie on the perception, assessment and evaluation of the artefact in terms of its form. 


  • ** d'Azevedo W, 1957: A structural approach to aesthetics, American Anthropologist       
  • *Vogel S, 1988: ART/artifact, pp 1132, papers by Vogel and Danto. See also Gell A 1996 Art works as traps.  Journal of Material Culture 
  • **Kasfir S 1984 One Tribe, one style? Paradigms in the historiography of African Art.  History in Africa 11 163-193.     
  • Also Kasfir 1992 African arts and authenticity ; a text without a shadow in African Arts  25 (2). 
  • Bohannan P, 1961, Artist & critic in an African society in M W Smith, The Artist in Tribal Society, pp 8594 
  • ** Fernandez J, 1973: The exposition & imposition of order, in W d'Azevedo [ed], The Traditional Artist in African Societies, pp 8594 
  • Cole H M, 1969: Art as a verb in Iboland, African Arts, III, 1 
  • Cole H M, 1982: Mbari   ch 5, individuality, inspiration and aesthetics, pp 169182 
  • Maquet J, 1979: Art by metamorphosis, African Arts, XII, 4 
  • Frank B, 1998: Mande Potters and Leatherworkers   
  • D'Azevedo, 1957, was the first to explore these ideas from a place within African ethnography; and it would anyway be foolish to argue that aesthetic activity (and therefore `art' in the sense of things made that sustain formal and intellectual interest) was other than universal; but of course what is selected as worthy of this attention is locally specific. It follows that the ox (Nuer), the hoe (Ebira), and the yam heap (Tiv) are, or can be considered as, works of art. (Anyway they are works of an art, for ...) A thing can be useful and at the same time valued as form (and the words art', `craft', and `technology' have their origins in the Latin, AngloSaxon and Greek words for `skill'). 
  • ** EvansPritchard E: 1940 The Nuer, pp 22, 3645 
  • Lienhardt G, 1961: Divinity and Experience, pp 1517 
  • Coote J, 1992: 'Marvels of everyday vision': the anthropology of aesthetics and the cattle keeping Nilotes, in J Coote & A Shelton [eds], Anthropology, Art and Aesthetics, pp 245273 
  • Bohannan P, 1954, Tiv Farm and Settlement, see Mounds pp 1617 
  • Picton J, 1990: The Ebira hoe: there is more to its `context' than digging the earth, in C Deliss [ed] Lotte or the Transformation of the Object (published as Durch 8/9, Kunstverein, Graz, Austria), p 56 
  • John Picton, 2004, On marking and masking in the art of Bruce Onobrakpeya, in Perkins Foss [ed], Where Gods and Mortals Meet: Continuity and Renewal  in Urhobo Art, Museum for African Art, New York, 131-133.    



Week 3. Technology, style, history 


Textiles are at least as ubiquitous an art as any other; and at times textiles and dress have played a key role in definitions of ethnicity and nationality. In late 19th century Lagos, for example, the question of what to wear had precisely these significances and was vigorously debated among a middle class intelligentsia increasingly excluded from government by the colonial regime. Then, during the late 20th century Yoruba women have turned to weaving when other professions, such as school teaching have failed to provide them with work. As to the cloths themselves, the distinctive patterning known in the Niger delta as `tortoise cloth' ikakibite, is now proven as originating in the Yoruba speaking part of Nigeria (the earliest known example was collected in the 18th century and is in the Royal Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, see Aronson 1980, p 96) and in turn to have set off developments elsewhere among women weaving on the upright single heddle loom. In contrast, aso oke, `uphill cloth' (ie cloth of a kind inherited from the past; or coming from inland; or having high status) is woven by Yoruba men on a narrow double heddle loom. Both ikakibite and aso oke appear to be flourishing; and part of the reason for this has to do with the manner in which they continue to function as participant elements in the history and constitution of ethnic and national identities. Ewe weavers from Ghana have also left their trace, especially in women's weaving but also, more recently (as Duncan Clarke has found), in aso oke. 




Supplement : Dying and Pattern 

The concerns here are mostly with dyeing and printing: with Yoruba adire (and the nature of its takenforgranted "traditional" status), the developments known in Nigeria as kampala; Asante adinkra , and Fante appliqued flags. These cloths are among the local bases for the late 19thcentury reception of exotic fabrics based upon Indonesian wax batiks, and the rapid development of popular and distinctive patterns that provided a means of maintaining local tradition, proclaiming a modern identity and subverting colonial pretence. Since Independence, their manufacture has been largely transferred to West Africa, with just one factory left in England and one in the Netherlands. Meanwhile, their gentle subversiveness is developed in the work of Yinka Shonibare. 


  • ** Jackson G, 1971: The devolution of the Jubilee design, in J Barbour and D Simmonds [eds], Adire Cloth in Nigeria, pp 8393   
  • Barbour J, 1970: Nigerian `Adire' cloths, BaesslerArchiv, vol xviii   
  • Cole H & D Ross, 1977: The Arts of Ghana, pp 186199 (Fante war company flags)    
  • ** Picton J, 1995: Technology, tradition and lurex, in Barbican Art Gallery,The Art of African Textiles: Technology, Tradition and Lurex and the other essays  
  • Bickford K, 1994: The ABCs of cloth and politics in Côte d'Ivoire, Africa Today, 2nd Quarter Domowitz S, 1992: Wearing proverbs: Anyi names for printed cloth, African Arts, XXV, 3 
  • Enwezor O, 1999: Tricking the mind, in Ikon Gallery, Yinka Shonibare: Dressing Down pp 818 




Week 4. What’s in a Mask? 



Using the word `mask' of works of art in Africa might seem obvious enough; and yet it cannot be straightforward, nor can its implications be taken for granted. For `mask' is a word, an idea, a metaphor, and an artefact, each with its history within a European history of ideas. Following on, therefore, from last week we consider the relationship between person, persona, and `mask', and we try to answer the question: exactly what does, or is supposed to, happen when someone puts on a mask? A supplementary concern is with the relationship between the words `mask' and `masquerade.' However, Kasfir 1988 shows that these are not the only questions to be asked.  I will be posting my unpublished manuscript No Event No History: Politics and performance in Ekiti masquerade on the VLE.  You may dip into it, read it, give me feedback or just ignore it entirely! 


  • ** Picton J, 1990: What's in a mask, African Language and Culture, 3, 2, pp 181202     
  • ** Picton J, 1996: The masque of words, in K Arnaut & E Dell [eds], Bedu is my Lover, pp 58    
  • Gore, C 2008 'Masks and Modernities.' African Arts, 41 (4). 1, 4-7.  You can usefully read all the papers in this volume, but you might want to look at Rea especially.  
  • Picton J, 2000: Two masks from the Yorubaspeaking region; in K Arnaut [ed], ReVisions: New Perspectives on the African Collections of the Horniman Museum pp 171187 
  • Rea W, 2000: Masks and styles: Yoruba masquerade in a regional perspective, also in Arnaut, ReVisions ... pp 159170 
  • Jedrej M C, 1980: A comparison of some masks from North America, Africa and Oceania, Journal of Anthropological Research, XXXVI, 2, pp 220230 1986: Dan and Mende masks: a structural comparison, Africa, pp 7179 
  • d'Azevedo W, 1973: Mask Makers and Myth in Western Liberia, in A Forge [ed], Primitive Art & Society, pp 126150 
  • Horton R, 1960: The Gods as Guests (NB the three modes of dramatic presentation)   
  • Biebuyck D, 1973: Lega Culture, pp 210214 

W Rea The Ẹpa masquerades of Èkìtì: a structural approach – on VLE  

  • Fischer E, 1978: Dan forest spirits, African Arts, X, 2, pp 2227 
  • Fischer E & H Himmelheber, 1984: The Arts of the Dan   
  • Kasfir S, 1988: West African Masks and Cultural Systems, intro pp 116   


Masks and Powers 

  • ** Siroto L, 1972: Gon: a mask used in competition for leadership among the BaKwele; in Fraser D & H M Cole [eds], African Art and Leadership 
  • ** Horton R, 1966: Igbo: an ordeal for aristocrats, Nigeria, 90    OCR REQUESTED BY LIBRARY (HT 11/02/2021) 
  • Strother Z, 1998: Inventing Masks, ch 8, masks in the colonial period, pp 229263 
  • McNaughton P, 1979:Secret Sculptures of Komo: Working Papers in the Traditional Arts, 4   
  • Brain R & A Pollock, 1971:  Bangwa Funerary Sculpture, esp pp 117136    
  • Phillips R, 1995:Representing Woman, ch 3, structure and set in Mendemasquerades, pp 5172  
  • Drewal H J et al, 1978: The arts of egungun. African Arts, XI, p 3  
  • Olajubu O & J R O Ojo, 1977: Some aspects of Oyo Yoruba masquerades, Africa 
  • Gotrick K, 1984: Apidan Theatre and Modern Drama 
  • Tonkin E, 1979: Masks and powers, Man 




Week 5. Gender, power and play 

Date 21st February 


It is characteristic of masquerade throughout Africa, with rare exceptions (see below), that women are in some sense placed socially by their exclusion, more or less, from performance. However, particular traditions of masking practice differ substantially from one another in the manner and substance of that exclusion. In some, there may be a theory justifying their seemingly complete exclusion from all aspects of performance and knowledge. In other traditions their participation may be no more than singing the songs and providing the audience, and yet they can know all there is to be known women. In other words the appearance of secrecy may be no more than that, serving only to heighten dramatic impact; but, even then, traditions differ in regard to purpose and intention. Though masked performances in the practice of Ebira eku, Yoruba efegelede, and Afikpo Igbo okumkpa share some common features, they differ markedly in terms of the status of the masks, the reality and significance of secrecy, the intentions presupposed in performance, and so forth.  

In the forests of Sierra Leone and Liberia there are adjacent peoples (see R Phillips 1995, 36 37) of diverse origins and speaking languages of differing groups, but each with contrasting male and female initiation organisations that each entail masked performances. The women's organisation, Sande (or Bondo), is thus one of the very few cases wherein women are responsible for the procedures of mask/masquerade commissioning, ownership and performance (everything except for carving the mask, a fact that, at least in the Gola case, is problematic for the sculptor). 







Week 6. Yoruba carving, aesthetics and ethnicity 


In the study of African art, Robert Farris Thompson was the first to investigate the aesthetic criteria motivating Yoruba art; and from this he proceeded to develop a pan African aesthetic. In both he was widely acclaimed; and criticised, and for a variety of reasons. Cole, for example, writes that he confuses descriptive and evaluative criteria. The underlying problem may well be, of course, that it is vitiated from the outset by assuming the existence of what it sets out to prove; but at least Thompson shows that Yoruba sculptural form can be described in Yoruba words; and comparison with Norton's account of Kalabari provides useful insight in regard to matters of form. 


The ritual and cult traditions of the Yorubaspeaking peoples inherited from the past survive, moreorless, notwithstanding the success of Islamic and Christian missionary activity. Participation therein is concerned with the procedures of engagement with the energy of a deity to effect changes in the circumstances of one's life. We consider the poetics and practices of Yoruba divination, Ifa; the role of the trickster, Eshu; and the work of Shango, the deity manifest in thunder and lightening. Each deity has distinctive cult and sculptural forms; but (as one might expect) we discover problems in their iconographic exegesis. For `when Yoruba people say that they perform ritual "just like" their ancestors did it in the past, improvisation is implicit ... the progression of the action as well as the meanings it generates are unfixed ...' (Drewal 1992, 23). 



For critical accounts of Thompson's work see (and read at least one of these): 

For other attempts to account for the formal attributes of Yoruba art traditions see:  


For the sculptural tradition of Ekiti and Opin, to which much of this discussion refers see: 

  • Walker R A, 1998: Olowe of Ise: a Yoruba Sculptor to Kings, esp pp 1333 
  • Picton J, 1994a: Art, identity, and identification: a commentary on Yoruba art historical studies, in Abiodun, Drewal & Pemberton [eds], The Yoruba Artist, pp 131 
  • Picton J, 1994b: Sculptors of Opin, African Arts, XXVII, 3, 4659 
  • W Rea Unpublished – The woodcarvers of Ekiti – on VLE.  


On Yoruba ethnicity  


  • ** Abiodun R, 1974: Ifa art objects: an interpretation based on oral tradition, in W Abimbola [ed], Yoruba Oral Tradition, pp 421469   
  • Abiodun R, 2000: Riding the horse of praise ... Ifa divination sculpture, in J Pemberton III [ed], Insight and Artistry in African Divination, pp 182192 (see also Pemberton's introduction, pp 19) 
  • ** Wescott J & P Morton Williams, 1962: The symbolism and ritual context of the Yoruba laba shango, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 
  • Wescott J, 1962: The sculpture and myths of Eshuelgba, Africa, XXXIII, pp 336353 
  • Parsons S W, 1999: Interpreting projections, projecting interpretations: a reconsideration of the "phallus" in Esu iconography, African Arts, XXXII, 2, 3645 
  • Drewal M T, 1992: Yoruba Ritual: performers, play, agency, esp chs 2, 4, 10 


The best general introduction to Yoruba studies is probably still: 

In addition to the references already given, here is some further reading in the visual arts: 




Week 7. Edo Art: visual metaphor and representations of authority 


The art of Benin, or, to give it its proper name, Edo, the city, kingdom and empire in the forest to the west of the lower Niger, comprises several thousand objects, now largely scattered through the museums of Europe and America following the British Punitive Expedition of 1897. This corpus raises many issues of significance in the study of art in Africa, not least the manner in which art participates in the constitution, understanding and articulation of institutions of authority. Here we consider the metaphorical connotations of particular animals, colours and materials in these processes, while the ikegobo (altar of the hand) also provides insight into aspects of the strategies for the acquisition of that authority. Moreover, a comparative study of the cult of the hand (or arm: it is characteristically the same word) in the lower Niger region as it is found in the Igbo  and Igala speaking areas also, helps us to understand differences in the nature and articulation of authority, as also the constitution of Edo chiefly orders. 


  • Drewal and Shildkrout 2010 Kingdom of Ife: Sculptures from West Africa British Museum Press.  
  • ** Bradbury R, 1961: Ezomo's ikegobo and the Benin cult of the hand, Man  (old style) pp 129137: also reprinted in Bradbury 1973, Benin Studies (the pictures are better in Man) 
  • ** BenAmos P Girshick, 1976: Men and Animals in Benin Art, Man, pp 243252 
  • BenAmos P Girshick, 1995: The Art of Benin [2nd ed, & the best short intro to this art]  
  • BenAmos P Girshick, & A Rubin, [eds] 1983: The Art of Power: The Power of Art   
  • Boston J, 1977: Ikenga   
  • Blier S P, 1998: Royal Arts of Africa
  • Ezio Bassani & William Fagg, 1988, Africa and the Renaissance, Center for African Art, New York;  esp chs 1 & 2.  
  • Nigel Barley, 1987, Pop art in Africa? The Kalabari ancestral screens, Art History, 10, 369-380; and/or 1988, Foreheads of the Dead, National Museum of African Art, Washington DC   
  • John Picton, 1997, Edo art, dynastic myth and intellectual aporia, African Arts, XXX, 4, 18-25   
  • Gore, Charles (1997) 'Casting Identities in Contemporary Benin City.' African Arts, 30 (3). pp. 54-61. 
  • Gore, Charles (2007) Art, Performance and Ritual in Benin City. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. 


Week 8. Visual and Material Tropes in West and Central African Sculpture 


Figures of speech have their visual analogues (indeed, the greater the dependence of written or spoken language on rhetorical figures, the more that text approaches the conditions of an 'art'); and, as we should now understand from last week, this is significant in any attempt to enter the intellectual worlds presupposed and entailed in artworks in Africa. This week we advance the discussion by contrasting visual tropes (especially visual metaphors), which might be said to be about knowledge, with the preparation of `magical medicines' which reveals an imaginative art of the material metaphor capable of actualization as energy. This discussion, while it takes off from previous material, especially about Ebira masquerade and Edo art, introduces Kuba (Mack, Vansina) and Kongo (Mack, MacGaffey, etc) imagery; and having argued that artefacts are inert but for the lives we `project' on to them, here we seem to encounter another theory (we have also already encountered a Kalabari theory of images as `names') in which images are implicated in the covert effects of energies that, once we have brought them into existence, might also have the ability to act independently. Does this argue against a theory of images as literally inert? 





Week 9. Can Images Speak? 


We talk about images as if they could act and talk, which are literal impossibilities: works of art are inert; they "live" only insofar as we impart a sort of life to them (and there are many ways in which this can be done, of course). It is as if we are seduced by the images we make (remember Pinocchio); and we are also seduced by language into the commonplace assumption of a likeness (a homology, indeed) between 'art' and 'language', a likeness that is in reality a metaphor of limited value; and if it is taken literally, it only serves to diminish art. In this context 'meaning' seem to be just another limitation upon art; and matters are not made easier by the manner in which all language about art aspires to the condition of art. Although there is that school of cultural studies that begins with language and makes it the paradigm of all communication, if we begin with the visual arts this can be seen to be deeply unsatisfactory. 



Week 10. 



This list was last updated on 26/01/2021