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Arts of Africa: Getting started

Resources and strategies for researching African art

First things first

Many African art works aren’t associated with an individual artist's name (like Rembrandt or Grant Wood) so researching them in databases, books and journals takes a different path.

There are two basic approaches to finding information:

  • by the name of the people who produced the work, such as Maasai or Asante
  • by the country or countries and region the people are from, such as the Yoruba of Nigeria and Benin in West (or Western) Africa  or the Makonde of Tanzania and Mozambique in East (or Eastern) Africa

It is rare to find much information about a specific piece, such as the Bushoong mask owned by the University of Iowa Museum of Art but you can find information about similar pieces.

It helps to identify and find information about similar pieces if you know the following:

  • What was/is the object’s function in the society?  (Household use, a religious object, or a status symbol?)
  • Where was it made?
  • What’s the time period of its creation?
  • What’s it made of and how was it made?  (A painted wood mask with cowrie shells and holes on the side can be a  very different thing than one that is not painted and has real hair and metal beads.)

As you search for information, watch out for and use:

  • Names of peoples and countries that have changed
  • Multiple spellings (the author’s language may affect how s/he spells things)
  • Overlapping terms (a mask can also be called sculpture, pottery can be ceramics)
  • Cross-disciplinary terms. You’re working in an area that combines art history,anthropology, and archaeology so:
  • a vase may also be called a vessel, pot, or jar
  • textiles may be a weaving or cloth
  • a figure may be a sculpture or a statue

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Patricia Gimenez
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