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  • Print publication year: 2005
  • Online publication date: May 2017

13 - Signs of Time, Shapes of Thought: The Contributions of Art History and Visual Culture to Historical Methods in Africa

from Part III - Perspectives on History


A river that forgets its source, dries up

—Yoruba Proverb

What is art? What is art history? How does art history relate to other kinds of art studies, to history, and to the emerging field of visual culture? These and other issues are discussed in this two-part chapter. Part I considers the following topics: 1) an African understanding of “art,” 2) definitions and discussions of concepts and methods in art history, 3) a comparison of the disciplines of art history and history showing their commonalities and differences and how they may complement each other to enrich and deepen our understandings of Africa's past, and 4) an assessment of the new transdiscipline of visual culture. Part II provides an overview and assessment of art-historical and visual culture studies in Africa and the African Diaspora over the last forty years that historians of Africa may find relevant and useful.

Art is a visual documentation of a creative process shaped by historical and cultural circumstances. African cultures have countless distinct, explicit, and complex terms and concepts for objects and processes that are called “art” in the “western” world. For example, Yoruba-speaking peoples in Nigeria and Benin call art ona—a complex term that encompasses ideas of the beautification, embellishment, decoration, skillful manipulation, and transformation of media (wood, clay, iron, bronze, pigments, etc.), and the play (ere) of images and ideas. Ona is evocative form—something meant to move and enlighten its audiences, helping them to experience deeply and to make sense of their world.

If we take a Yoruba understanding of “art” (and this may vary greatly in other African cultures, as it does globally), how does one analyze “evocative form” before interpreting its historical and cultural meanings or significance? We begin with form, the visible object, and analyze its visual elements—line, color, shape, texture, size/scale, composition—in order to record our perceptions and to reflect on them in order to understand the object's style. Style is the synthesis of its distinctive characteristics or expressive qualities and reveals how/why the work is evocative. With this analysis of form and style, we examine the work's content, meanings, or significance—the cultural and historical ideas, perceptions and attitudes it expresses. This aspect of art history has been called the study of iconography, the analysis of symbolic meanings of images, or its broader, more interpretive version, iconographical interpretations/iconology.