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ARCH 1615 Art/Artifact: The Art and Material Culture of Africa

Fall 2012, Tuesdays and Thursdays 2.30-3.50pm

Instructor: Rachel Ama Asaa Engmann

Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World

Office: Rhode Island Hall, Room 210               


Office Hours: Tuesday and Thursday, 4:00 pm - 5:00 pm, and by arrangement

Course wiki address: [link]



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 art historical, anthropological, archaeological and material culture approaches to African art and material culture.  

The seminar’s scope adopts an African continental approach to African objects.  We will explore visual and spatial representations of Africa, such as personal adornment, utilitarian objects, sculpture, textiles, painting, masquerade, graphic writing systems and architecture.  We will pay attention to the ways in which African art and material culture has been categorized, interpreted and displayed, exploring issues such as identity, religion, history and politics.  We consider questions such as: How can we analyze the material signatures of past African societies?  How was African art produced and used in original settings?  What cultural, social, political and historical processes contribute to continuity and change in African material culture?  How do we recognize and study the past dynamics of ethnicity, class and gender in African artifacts?

We will also 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 examine the politics and practical aspects of contemporary African heritage practice by engaging with some of the associated controversies and ethical responsibilities.  Here, we ask: How did African objects arrive into nineteenth century European museum collections?  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?  How do we work with African artifacts given international codes and conventions, yet also respect local, communal and indigenous rights?

This course involves the handling and study of African objects currently housed in the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology at Brown University.  The course builds upon the theory discussed in class, as well as your own awareness, understanding and experience of African art and material culture, and encourages you to experiment with the practical aspects of museum exhibition display.  Students will select and examine a selection of objects and establish creative strategies for developing an exhibition, at the museum or through the museum website. The exhibition will be collaborative project between the Haffenreffer Museum at Brown University and the Ghana Museums and Monuments Board and the Ghana National Museum.

There are no prerequisites for the course.

It is intended that we will participate in field trips to the Haffenreffer Museum, Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.  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.

Course Requirements
Class participation (10%)
Exhibition project (30%)
Class presentation (15 mins, 20%)
Final research paper (10-12 pages, 40%) 

Course Texts

Lecture readings to be done by the beginning of the week assigned.

There is no text book for this class.  Readings will be available in a password-protected forum on the Joukowsky Institute wiki site established in association with this seminar.

African Arts, the quarterly journal published by the University of California Press  (available online)

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