SOAS University of London

Department of the History of Art and Archaeology, School of Arts

African Art I: Context and Representation

Module Code:
Unit value:
Year of study:
Year 2 or Year 3
Taught in:
Full Year
The course is sub-titled ‘context, representation and signification’, with the intention that we think about who is doing what when an artefact is made, used or displayed. We consider a range of forms or art(ifact) in Africa, with a particular emphasis on sculpture and masquerade, their place in particular social and historical circumstances, and the conceptual apparatus available to us for the writing of a history of visual art in Africa.

Things are made to be used; and the making and using, and indeed the artefacts themselves, are contexts of ideas and practices. However, an artefact is capable of enduring in ways that its makers and users are not, and for this reason ‘context’ cannot be considered a fixed property of artefacts.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

Course Objectives:
  • To enable students to develop an understanding of the methods, practices and key issues in art history in relation to Africa;
  • To provide a supportive context for a critical appraisal by the students of the various approaches and issues developed in African art history within this course;
  • To enable students to develop a range of skills relevant to an understanding of African art and to general research and study skills through participation in the course;
  • To enable students to develop their own professional and personal interests through participation in the course;
  • To enable an appreciation of the variety of cultural values and their implications for equality issues such as class, "race", gender, sexual orientation, age and disability.
Course Learning Outcomes:
  • To have gained knowledge and understanding of the themes, issues and debates of African art relating to their social contexts, the processes of representation and the ways in which meaning is constituted in these local contexts through in depth examples of African art;
  • To be able identify and compare different approaches to understanding art traditions in Africa.;To be able to assess critically the materials and themes explored in the course through the use of particular examples from Africa;
  • To have been introduced to the range of skills used in art history and developed independent study and research skills.

Scope and syllabus

The course begins by considering the role of external representations in shaping art discourses about Africa and then proceeds to consider local African approaches to understanding the making, distribution and uses of artefacts with extensive comparative materials.

The performative aspects of African masking practices are highlighted in detail over a five week module and their political implications lead on to consider the imagery of political and ritual authority. The final part of the course develops a range of case studies which examine the utility and limitation of, sometimes taken for granted, linguistic and semiotic analogies in understanding African art.

Method of assessment

  • One 750 words book review (worth 10%)
  • Two 2 500 words essays (worth 20% each)
  • One weekly learning log (worth 10%)
  • One exam (worth 40%)

Suggested reading

  • Ben-Amos Gershick, 1995, The Art of Benin
  • Biebuyck, D., 1973, Lega Culture
  • Drewal, H.J., Pemberton, J., Abiodun, R., 1989, Yoruba: Nine Centuries of Art and Thought
  • Fraser, D., and Cole, H.M., African Art and Leadership
  • Horton, R., 1965, Kalabari Sculpture
  • Loughran, K.S., et al., 1986, Somalia in Word and Image
  • Perry, R.M., 1992, Free within Ourselves
  • Price, R., and Price, S., 1981, Afro American Arts of the Suriname Rain Forest
  • Rubin, A., (ed.) 1988, Marks of Civilisation


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules