SOAS University of London

History of Art and Archaeology

Themes in the Art and Archaeology of Africa

Module Code:
Module Not Running 2022/2023
FHEQ Level:
Year of study:
Year 1
Taught in:
Term 1

This provides a basic outline of key issues in the prehistory and history of art in Africa which enables students who so wish to continue their interests further in this area. It also provides an introduction to prehistory, technology and art that is relevant to other fields. 

The course covers material from across the continent from the emergence of humans and their artefact-making capacity to African artists in the twentieth century. It includes rock arts, African technologies with attention to pottery sculpture and metallurgy, a range of sites from predynastic and dynastic Egypt to the Swahili coast that includes Ife, Asante and Benin in West Africa and the role of authority and power in the arts of central and southern Africa. It concludes by considering the relevance of Africa to the Americas.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

Aims of Course:
  1. To introduce and enable students to develop an understanding of some of the methods, practice and key issues in African art history and archaeology.
  2. To provide a supportive context for a critical appraisal by the students of the various approaches and issues developed within this introduction to African art history and archaeology.
  3. To enable students to develop a range of skills relevant to an understanding of African art history and archaeology.
  4. To enable students to develop their own professional and personal interests through participation in the course.
  5. To enable an appreciation of the variety of cultural values and explore their implications for equality issues such as class, "race", gender, sexual orientation, age and disability.
The Outcomes:
  1. To have gained knowledge and understanding of the themes, issues and debates of African art history and archaeology provided within this introductory course.
  2. To able to identify and compare different approaches to art and archaeology in Africa.
  3. To be able to assess critically the materials and themes explored in the course.
  4. To have been introduced to a range of skills used in art history and archaeology within the study of Africa.


Lectures - 2 hours per week. Seminars/Tutorials - 1 hour per week.

Scope and syllabus

This course offers an introduction to the arts and archaeology of Africa through selected case-studies which raise the general issues involved in its study. It is a half-unit course for first-year students, intended to provide a very brief introduction to particular aspects of the prehistory and history of art in Africa.

For those students who wish to take the study of Africa further, it provides background to the study of sculpture, textiles, painting, architecture, and masquerade in the course units available in subsequent years. For those students whose study of African art will begin and end here, the course provides an introduction to aspects of prehistory, technology and art that will be useful for other courses anyway. For it is necessary to have some understanding of the place of art(ifacts) in the inception of human species in Africa, and in the events in human (pre)history that follow from this: the purposes of pictorial imagery; the processes by which plant and animal species become domesticated in sedentary communities, the development of ceramic and, later, metalworking technologies, of cities and centralised political authorities, of diasporas, and the transformations of the 20th century. The course places due emphasis on evidence for the innovative possibilities of a pre-industrial African social and technological environment; for it is this indigenous creativity that enables engagement with other parts of the world.

Method of assessment

  • 500-word object analysis (worth 10% of marks)
  • 1,500-word essay (worth 30%)
  • Participation in lectures and tutorials (worth 10%)
  • Exam (in term 3): 2 hours (worth 50%)

Suggested reading

  • Arnoldi, M. J., Playing with Time: Art and Performance in Central Mali (1995).
  • Ben Amos Girshick, P.: The Art of Benin (1995).
  • Cole H. and D. Ross, The Arts of Ghana (1977).
  • Deliss C., Seven Stories about Modern Art in Africa (1995).
  • Garlake P., Early Art and Architecture of Africa (2002).
  • Heldman M. and S., African Zion: the Sacred Art of Ethiopia (1993).
  • Loughran K. S., et al, eds., Somalia in Word and Image (1986).
  • Patton S. F., African-American Art (1998).
  • Picton J., The Art of African Textiles: Technology, Tradition and Lurex (1995).
  • Willett F., African Art (1971).


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules