Art/Artifact: African Art and Material Culture

Course Description
This course is an introduction to African art and material culture. In this class, we will focus on the major themes, ideas and debates that have shaped and continue to shape the theoretical and methodological frameworks for studying African objects. In this class, our goal is to engage with the possibilities, problems and challenges presented by archaeological, anthropological, material culture and art historical approaches to African art and material culture.

We will examine the pivotal role of African objects in Africa, as well as Europe and the United States, and the projects of colonialism, imperialism, apartheid and nationalism in light of collecting practices, museums, heritage, development and human rights. We will explore the ways in which African material culture has been categorized, interpreted and displayed. We will pay close attention to the politics and practical aspects of contemporary African heritage practice by engaging with some of the associated controversies and ethical responsibilities. In this class, we will ask: How did African objects come to arrive in nineteenth century European museums? What is the relationship between African material culture and the colonial imagination? And, how has this relationship between objects and the “invention of Africa” changed over time? Who “owns” African art today? How do we work with African collections given international codes and conventions, yet also respect local, communal and indigenous rights?

This tutorial course involves participation in the upcoming exhibition, ‘Selections from the Collection of Charles Derby’ at the University Museum of Contemporary Art: Fine Arts Center, at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Students will gain exposure to preparing exhibitions in physical and virtual spaces: planning, design and marketing. Students will choose an artifact or selection of artifacts and spend the semester researching and writing, producing a text for display labels or exhibition catalogue. A strong emphasis is placed on teamwork since positive, productive relationships are necessary in exhibition development; students will share their research with other and read drafts of each others’ work, including providing oral and written feedback.

Course Requirements
There are no prerequisites for the course. Students are expected to attend all class lectures and complete all assigned readings. This course will combine lecture with discussions of the readings. Lectures will highlight the major issues raised in the readings as well as provide supplementary examples. The course is designed to develop skills in close reading.

In this course, students are expected to spend at least six hours a week of preparation and work outside of class time. This time includes reading, writing, group assignments, creative projects and an occasional film.

All readings listed for the week should be completed prior to class meetings. Readings will be examined more fully during class discussion. General questions to think about concerning the readings will be provided each week in class and posted on the course website. Come to class prepared to discuss readings thoughtfully, critically and respectfully. Everyone’s views and perspectives deserve to be heard.

Work will be assessed through class participation (20%), one reflection paper & presentation (20%), class debates (20%) and final research project (40%). The course provides a supportive environment in which to practice your skills at written exposition, classroom debate and public presentations. Class presentations should be formal and polished, reflecting critical reading and demonstrating the significance for our discussion. The schedule for class presentations will be determined in the second week of class. The instructor must approve final project topics in advance. Final Papers due 20th November 2015. Final project essays will appear in the exhibition.

Course Texts
Lecture readings to be done by the beginning of the week assigned.
Readings will be available on reserve at library and on a password-protected forum on a website established in association with this seminar.
African Arts, Critical Interventions: Journal of African Art History and Visual Culture and more (

‘Vénus Noire’ (Black Venus) by Abdellatif Kechiche (2009). Paris: MK2. 140 minutes

‘Congo: White King, Red Rubber, Black Death’ (2004), Peter Bate. Art Mattan. 84 minutes

‘Through African Eyes’ (1995), Aminatta Forna, Sokari Douglas Camp, Josef Herman, Kirk Varnedoe and Henry Louis Gates Jr. New York: Public Media Home Vision

‘African Art: Legacy of Oppression’ (2003), Mary Lee and Sidney Nolan. New York: Films Media Group. 13 minutes

‘In and Out of Africa’ (1993), Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Taylor. Berkeley: Visual Productions. 59 minutes

‘Land of the Dogon: World Heritage in Peril’ (2013), Lutz Gregor. New York: Films Media Group. 52 minutes

Web Resources
British Museum, London, UK

The African Center, New York, US

Quai Branly Museum

Africa Trending: Investing in African Art
Bloomberg TV Africa


Other information
We will participate in field trips to the Mead Museum, Amherst College and Smith College Museum of Art. We will also engage with informal discussions with artists, collectors, curators, scholars and cultural heritage practitioners working with African collections in Africa, the United States and Europe.

The topic of African art fills newspapers, internet and airwaves. Students are encouraged to bring to class any material sources on issues pertinent to class assigned readings.

We will also visit an African restaurant in Amherst!