Undergraduate Seminar: African Power
Following a troubled postcolonial era in which the figure of the grotesque, corrupt dictator came to represent African state power in the global imaginary, the 2018 blockbuster film Black Panther revived images of dignified and elegant African monarchs whose legitimate power is exercised for the common good. To some extent, Wakanda resembles pre-colonial empires in which technological innovation, wealth, and state patronage of the arts fueled cultural florescence. Engines of patronage, states celebrated and legitimated their power through sumptuous regalia, court furnishings, jewelry, textiles, sculpture, and ritual objects. The figure of the sovereign was central to the visual elaboration of power in many of these formations: s/he could embody the fullness of the state, its capacity to care for the community and ensure peace and prosperity.
Taking Black Panther as a point of departure, this seminar will critically examine visual cultures of power in sub-Saharan Africa, with an emphasis on royal arts. While we will allow ourselves to marvel at the beauty, technical sophistication, and majesty of these arts, we will also consider the role they played in the obfuscation of the oppression and exploitation of commoners, and in inspiring awe and fear at the state’s military and spiritual might. We will subject the symbologies of power uncritically adopted by the film—such as animal totems and the androgynous styling of female soldiers—to rigorous scrutiny as we study the historical, cultural, and political contexts in which they emerged.
This course fulfills the following requirements for the History of Art major: Geographical area (D) and Chronological periods (II) or (III), based on the topic of the final research paper. Graduate students, lower division students, and non-majors may be able to enroll with permission from the instructor.