We come to art from various locations. Some are out for a stroll, stumbling upon objects that grab their attention. Others are equipped with guidebooks, methodically approaching and regularly revisiting both actual and virtual works. Still other viewers revel in the familiar, remaining attentive to the details and information that cement life-long friendships.

African art is no different. For some, it may initially hold few clues that help unpack its meaning. Those viewers may have little knowledge of Africa or could actually be African–from a different part of the continent, a totally different culture, or members of a religion that distances them even from a work their own hometown produced.

No art is completely transparent, letting us understand all of an artist’s constraints, thoughts, choices, or associations. But if we are not privy to all of an artist’s perceptions and interpretations, we can lessen the differences in our understanding–and this is a process that creates human pleasure in both cerebral and sensual ways. By familiarizing ourselves with art, learning its visual vocabulary and grammar, assessing our taste for it, and placing it within the contexts of its makers and users, we expand our world.

You don’t have to like every work you see, even when someone labels it a masterpiece. You may develop a love for a piece made for tourists or one that seems flawed. That’s fine. The goal for anyone studying art is to develop knowledge and refine your own taste. Art is a window that permits vision within and without, and as such, it allows you to become a seer whose perceptions and comprehension lead to revelations.

This book aims to act as your map through the world of African art. As such, it will help you define the competencies you need to develop–visual analysis, research, noting what information is critical, asking questions, and writing down your observations–and provide opportunities for you to practice these skills until you are proficient. It will also expose you to new art forms and the worlds that produced them, enriching your understanding and appreciation.

This is an ongoing project. Your text will not be complete the day you first click on it, but will be written as we proceed through the course. Because it will be used for other courses beyond your own, you may find that it includes materials beyond those your class demands. Encourage your curiosity–chase after it.

Standing figure with large eye sockets
Guardian figure. Mambila male artist, Nigeria, late 19th or early 20th century. Wood and pigment, 8.5 x 3.75 x 3 in. Brooklyn Museum, 73.9.1_SL3. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Gerofsky. Creative Commons BY 2.0.