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Art and Life in Africa Online

University of Iowa

Reviewed by:
Anne Good
University of Minnesota
July 2005

At the core of this site is a searchable database of African art entitled the Stanley Collection. This collection of more than 500 images and objects focuses mainly on western Africa, and it is possible to search by country, ethnic group, type of artifact, material, function, style, or substyle (the final two links refer to geographic categories).

This site also includes a number of links to explanatory essays and other resources that serve as excellent general introductions to African history, culture, and art. It is part of the larger Art and Life in Africa Project, which offers links to resources for teachers, including DVDs for sale, a glossary and pronunciation guide, a teacher’s forum, and lesson suggestions. The focus here is also on West Africa, with additional special links to pages about Mali and Burkina Faso.

“Key Moments in Life” is a good place to start. This essay is subdivided by 10 links to stages of the human lifecycle, and includes photos of people, objects and places. The site’s creator notes that using the lifecycle to talk about African art is one way to “de-exoticize” Africa and make this continent more approachable for North American audiences.

The site also has links to “Countries Resources” and “Peoples Resources.” The first link provides facts about 27 Sub-Saharan African countries. The second link digs deeper and gives information about 107 different ethnic groups in these African countries. In each case a map is provided as well as short synopses of the history, economy, political systems, religion, and types of art of the people group and the geographic area. The other pages of the site also link to these fact pages for easy access to the information.

In exploring the Stanley Collection database, it is best to try one type of search at a time. For example, under “function,” a student might click on “musical instruments” to see a variety of objects, including a 16th-century horn made from a large ivory tusk, which was used by the royalty of the Kingdom of Congo; or 20th-century stringed instruments that show both the innovation and craftsmanship of African musicians, often working with limited materials. Students might also link to QuickTime sound files found on the Art and Life in Africa Project site to get a sense of how the instruments might sound.

Another suggestion, given in one of the site’s own teaching modules, is to do a search for “jewelry” (also under “function”). Students should consider materials, functions, and styles (as described in the captions) in order to gain a better understanding of African motifs and the purpose of bodily decoration.

Students are better able to understand artifacts when they are placed in the context of important facets of people’s lives, such as childhood, puberty, religious belief, marriage, and death. Students could look for art or objects in Western culture (in the present or historically) that compare to African art and artifacts in similar categories. Challenging examples might be the nkisi, or power figures of the Kongo people from Congo, or the Mbari houses of the Igbo people from Nigeria, used to represent and to try to harness spiritual forces. These items might be compared in a variety of ways with sculptures of saints or carved altars in Christian churches. The point here is not to change students’ own beliefs, but to discuss uses of art, as well as a deeper point: what strategies do human beings in all cultures use to deal with the unpredictability of life?

In short, this is a wonderful site that not only offers an abundance of images from Africa and information about Africa, but also many creative ways to understand and use the material in classroom settings.

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