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African Voices

Smithsonian, National Museum of Natural History
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Reviewed by:
Eric Allina-Pisano
Colgate University
April 2004

This website presents a wonderful set of historical and contemporary images and accompanying text that survey African history and culture. The breadth and quality of the material goes a long way toward achieving the stated goal of exploring Africa’s striking diversity and long history. Roughly 100 maps, photographs, drawings, and paintings—all clear, many colorful—load quickly and provide extensive coverage of the continent. About 15 audio and video clips effectively mimic the multimedia exhibits often found in today’s museums. The sophistication of the site’s design makes it a challenge to describe how it presents information.

The site is divided in four major areas: “History,” “Themes,” “Focus Gallery,” and “Learning Center.” The first two areas are divided into a number of subsections. “History” includes Humans Arise; Nile Valley; Mali; Africans in Spain; Slave Trade; Central African Trade; Ethiopia; Colonialism; South Africa; and Today. “Themes” covers Wealth in Africa; Market Crossroads; Working in Africa; Living in Africa; Kongo Crossroads; and Global Africa. A click on any one presents the viewer with a set of images, a scrollable timeline or set of subthemes, and in some cases, audio and video clips. The “Focus Gallery” offers an in-depth look, through photographs and text, at Candomblé an Afro-Brazilian religion) and the work of Lamidi Olonade Fakeye, a wood carver from Nigeria. The “Learning Center” provides a bibliography on African Arts, History, Anthropology, Religion, and Slavery. The list includes good general works, but is far from exhaustive. This section also includes Web-based resources, with direct links to other online Museums (such as South Africa’s terrific District Six Museum), Africana-focused websites (including the Center for Black Music Research, which has magisterial coverage of African-influenced New World music, but comparatively little from Africa itself), and a strong list of African studies centers from universities around the United States and the world.

Given that the site’s authors have chosen to present the historical material in outline form, one cannot expect complete coverage. Within the constraints of the form, they have done quite well, but it does produce some strange results. For example, the timeline on colonialism runs from 1919 to 1990, omitting entirely the period (1880s through World War I) in which European powers imposed colonial rule. In a similarly odd fashion, the timeline’s themes and events focus entirely on African resistance against colonial rule and the struggle for independence—vitally important, to be sure, but as such would be all the more meaningful if contextualized with more information about the impact of colonial rule on African societies.

Material culture is the site’s clear strength. “Market Crossroads,” under “Themes,” lets viewers take in the sights and sounds of the 31st December Makola market in downtown Accra, Ghana. While listening to the background traffic noise of bustling shoppers and vendors, viewers can pan across a tableau of textiles, foodstuffs, and housewares—some locally-produced, others representative of the rapidly globalizing marketplace. A click on any of the blinking images produces expository text: identifying kola nuts as an important commodity traded since the 13th century, or “reading” the patterns of the textiles on sale to reveal sometimes biting social meanings.

Pride of place surely belongs, however, to the “Discovering Mudcloth” section of the “Wealth in Africa” theme. This section introduces viewers to a tradition of hand-dying from Mali. Through a series of annotated images, viewers encounter a local producer of mudcloth designs, a Paris-based clothing designer who incorporates the art form into high fashion, and a painter who reinterprets the aesthetic onto his canvases. The highlight of this section is the animated, interactive “Make Your Own Mudcloth.” The viewer can make a virtual mudcloth, sewing, dying, and choosing designs for the material. The site identifies each section of the unfinished cloth by name and by what part of the garment it will become. The viewer then chooses from a set of patterns—each one named and the meaning or significance explained—to apply to each part of the garment. The final product can be printed.

That the site’s center of gravity tilts toward material culture is not surprising, given that it draws on an existing museum exhibit. Moreover, two of the exhibit’s organizers—Mary Jo Arnoldi and Christine Kreamer—are noted scholars of material culture in Africa.1 The site will be most useful for instructors looking for general outlines in African history and culture, or for instructors and students in search of richly illustrated nuggets of specific information on topics in African arts.

1 Mary Jo Arnoldi, Christraud M. Geary, and Kris L. Hardin, eds., African Material Culture (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996); Mary Jo Arnoldi and Christine Kreamer, Crowning Achievements: African Arts of Dressing the Head (Los Angeles: Fowler Museum of Cultural History, University of California, Los Angeles, 1995).

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