SOAS University of London

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

Visual Arts of Africa and The Atlantic World: History, Creativity and Agency

Module Code:
Module Not Running 2021/2022
FHEQ Level:
Year of study:
Year 2, Year 3 or Year 4
Taught in:
Term 2
This 0.5 course considers the arts of Atlantic Africa and their dispersal initially through brutal enforced migrations of the middle passage to the ongoing exchanges of the present day as encapsulated by Paul Gilroy's concept of the black Atlantic. It considers the inter-relationships between aspects of the visual arts of the region south of the Sahara, mostly through West Africa, Central Africa to South Africa and  its various multiple extensions/interactions to the new world and beyond.  Issues addressed are 1) the relationship between antiquity and the modern world, the ways indigenous achievement provided the basis for local agency in the particular aspects of change and development that we can identify as characteristic of the period to the end of the 19th century throughout the blacck Atlantic 2) Second there is the way in which textiles provide a way of exploring many of ideas about agency, identity and innovation both within and beyond Africa of which Kente cloth is an example popular as a marker of diasporic links to Africa. 3) Third, there is the relationship between ‘tradition’ and the 20th/21st century, when colonial and primitivist stereotypes are challenged through developments in art, as in other areas of social practice. 4) Fourth, we look at what happens in the African diasporas: what survived the Middle Passage, ‘Africa’ as a source of new identity, and art as documenting the experience of being "Black" and "African" (and "African American") in Britain and the Americas.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

On successful completion of this module a student will be able to:

  • Have gained knowledge and understanding of the themes, issues and debates of African and diasporic art traditions relating to the trajectories of their development within and outside Africa and to understanding the ways in which they are constituted in their local, regional and inter-continental circumstances through in depth examples of particular art traditions within and outside Africa.
  • Identify and compare different approaches to understanding art traditions within and outside Africa.
  • Assess critically the materials and themes explored in the course through the use of particular examples from within and outside Africa.
  • Have been introduced to the range of skills used in art history and developed independent study and research skills.
  • 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.


  • One hour Lecture, one hour Seminar

Method of assessment


  • One 750 word book review (worth 20%)
  • One 1,500 word essay (worth 40%)
  • One two hour exam (worth 40%)


  • One 750 word book review (worth 20%)
  • One 1,750 word essay (worth 40%)
  • One two hour exam (worth 40%)

Suggested reading


  • Gell A, 1998: Art and Agency: an anthropological theory
  • (ed.) Plankensteiner, Barbara, 2007, Benin Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria
  • Horton R, 1965: Kalabari Sculpture,
  • Ross D et al, 1998: Wrapped in Pride: Ghanaian Kente and African American Identity
  • Williamson S, 1989: Resistance Art in South Africa
  • Chappel T, 1977: Decorated Gourds from Northeastern Nigeria
  • W MacGaffrey & M Harris, 1993, Astonishment and Power,
  • Biebuyck D, 1973: Lega Culture
  • Loughran K S, et al [eds], 1986: Somalia in Word and Image
  • Cole H and D Ross, 1977: The Arts of Ghana


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules