Visual Cultures of Africa
Primitive. Tribal. Traditional. Authentic. These are the lenses that have fixed African visual cultures in relation to the dominant aesthetic traditions of the West. These classifications are based on “an Africa of the mind”—an Africa imagined as untainted, unchanging and existing in a state of nature prior to colonialism and global modernity—rather than on the dense fields of ideology, creativity, and entangled histories in which African cultural products have actually emerged.
In this new lower division survey course, we will approach the study of African visual cultures in a fundamentally different way. Rather than embrace a master chronology that would force Africa’s many cultural formations into a single narrative, we will instead take the politics of the present as a starting point. Our investigation will privilege aesthetic traditions and movements across sub-Saharan Africa that are meaningfully reinvigorated in contemporary artistic production and popular visual culture. We will examine Sufi murals in Dakar that depict floating holy men and miracles on the high seas, while considering the tension between visuality and secrecy central to many ritual-aesthetic formations. We will think about Yinka Shonibare’s headless figures garbed in brightly-patterned wax cloth—fabric bought and manufactured in Europe, but nevertheless distinctively “African”—in relation to the complex politics, social hierarchies, and economies with which the circulation and aesthetics of African textiles have been historically entangled. Shonibare’s decapitated Afro-Victorians will also lead us to a unit on portraiture, featuring works as diverse as ancient Yoruba copper heads and contemporary wedding photography. Other units will focus on politically charged monuments, including the Rhodes statue on the University of Cape Town campus; Afromodernist architecture; and satirical cartoons from Cameroon, the DRC, and post-apartheid South Africa.
Visits to exhibitions of African art at Bay Area museums will supplement the course materials.
This course satisfies the university’s breadth requirement and the lower division non-Western requirement for History of Art majors.