SOAS University of London

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

Arts and Society in sub-Saharan Africa

Module Code:
Module Not Running 2017/2018
Year of study:
Taught in:
Term 1

This course considers the relationship between visual art and social identity in Saharan Africa. The intention is to move away from the persistent and often pernicious imposition on artworks and artists of interpretative categories that are substantially of external invention. However rather than imposing categories from without, the emphasis of the course is to consider the ways in which individuals and communities place themselves in relation to works of art of their choice. This provides a focus on the local perceptions of form, tradition and history among people in Africa.

One of the themes for the course is modernity and masquerade, as masked performances survive and indeed in places thrive in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa. They are part of the modern world. At the same time they are emblematic of the past, of inherited traditions and performance practices and so highlight the complex and dialectic relationships between the present and the past, innovation and continuity, and the making of local African modernities Others are the textile histories in Africa and their deconstruction of Western hierarchies of art; the various and varying relationships between art and identity; art and Islam in Africa; and local relationships between the visual and the verbal among others.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

The Learning Outcomes:

  • To have gained knowledge and understanding of the key themes, issues and debates of African art, with attention to the dialectics between visual art and social identity in sub-Saharan Africa.
  • 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.
  • To have been introduced to the range of skills used in art history and developed independent study and research skills.
  • To have 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 as they pertain to the course and the issues raised.


  • One hour Lecture, one hour Seminar

Method of assessment

  • One 750 words book review (worth 30%)
  • One 2 500 words essay (worth 70%)

Suggested reading

  • Cole H, 1982:Mbari, ch 5. 1988: Igbo arts and ethnicity. pp 26-27; The survival and impact of mbari, pp 54-65; both in African Arts, XXI, 2
  • Cole H & C Aniakor, 1984: Igbo Arts, Community and Cosmos, Achebe foreword, chs 3, 4
  • Fischer E, 1976: Problems of creativity among the Dan artists, Quaderni Poro, 1, pp 167-178
  • Fischer E & H Himmelheber, 1984: The Arts of the Dan in West Africa
  • Johnson B C, 1987: Four Dan Sculptors: continuity and change
  • Ben-Amos P, 1980: Patron-artist interactions in Africa, African Arts, XII, 3, pp 56-57
  • MacGaffey W, 1993: The eyes of understanding, in W MacGaffrey & M Harris, Astonishment
    and Power,
  • Biebuyck D, 1973: Lega Culture, esp pp 54-57, 66-67, 142-157
  • Houlberg M, 1973: Ibeji images of the Yoruba, African Arts, VII, 1
  • Glaze A, 1975: Women, power, and art in a Senufo village, African Arts,  VII, 3
  • Glaze A, 1981: Art and Death in a Senufo Village 
  • Pemberton J [ed] 2000: Insight and Artistry in African Divination
  • Richter D, 1980: Art, Economics and Change, intro & chs 4, 7, 8
  • Ravenhill P, 1994:The Self and the Other: personhood and images among the Baule,,,
  • Ravenhill P,1996: Dreams and Reverie: images of otherworld mates among the Baule...
  • Vogel S M, 1997: Baule: African Art Western Eyes  
  • Phillips R, 1978: Masking in Mende society initiation rituals, Africa
  • Phillips R,1995: Representing Woman  (see also her opening account of differing modes of representation in successive generations of European writers)
  • Richards P, 2000: ‘Imina Sangan’ or ‘Masques a la Mode:’ contemporary masquerade in the Dogon region, in K Arnaut (ed), Re-Visions: New Perspectives on the African Collections of the Horniman Museum  pp 107-123 
  • Colleyn J, 2001, Bamana: The Art of Existence in Mali
  • Ezra K, 1988: Art of the Dogon
  • Griaule M, 1938 [2nd ed 1963]: Masques Dogons.
  • Griaule M, 1965: Conversations with Ogotemmeli.
  • Imperato P J, 1971: Contemporary adapted dances of the Dogon, African Arts, V, 1, 28-33
  • Spini T & S, 1976: Togu Na
  • van Beek W, 1991: Enter the bush: a Dogon masked festival, in Vogel, Africa Explores 56-77
  • Arnoldi, M J, 1995: Playing With Time: art and performance in central Mali  
  • Aronson L, 1984: Women in the arts, in M J Hay & S Stichter (eds)African Women


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules