Conceptual Foundations of African Art

For this module, you have two very important readings.

The first is “The Development and Study of African Art” by Frank Willett. Here he breaks down these notions of primitive art, and challenges us to consider African sculpture, for example, as a highly sophisticated art form with thousands of years of history behind it. He sees this classification of African primitive art as an outgrowth of European ethnocentrism, or the belief that European culture is at the very top of social evolution, with other cultures inferior. Ethnocentrism still pervades many established cultural institutions in Europe and the U.S., and as educated individuals, it is important that we recognize and critique it when we see it.

In studying African art, the theories of cultural relativism, first put forward by anthropologist Franz Boas, are much more useful than the ethnocentric theories put forward by earlier anthropologists. Cultural relativism is based on the principle that an individual’s beliefs and activities should be understood by others in terms of that individual’s own culture. That means that African art should not be judged by European standards, but by African ones. For example, African art’s functionalism runs counter, in many ways, to European aesthetic ideas about art for art’s sake, which is something that will come up repeatedly over the course of this semester. Again, this reading reminds us of the important role that the discipline of anthropology played in the early study of African art. Leo Frobenius was writing about African art as early as 1896, and his research suggested the importance of form to convey meaning in art objects. Later, one of Franz Boas’ students, Melville Herskovitz, became one of the leading scholars on African cultural survivals in the African diaspora, especially in the Americas. Another anthropologist, Margaret Trowell, distinguished three types of art which she called the spirit-regarding, man-regarding and the art of ritual display. Throughout this research, the importance of African art to spirituality was critical.

The second very important reading for this week is by Curtis Keim. In his book, “Mistaking Africa, Curiosities and Inventions of the American Mind”, Keim pierces many of the racist stereotypes of Africans and brings up some very critical points, the most important being that we should not refer to Africans in terms of tribes. Keim also does a great job of breaking down the historical dimensions to the creation of this myth of the darkest Africa in the mind of popular consciousness. He talks about U.S. President, Theodore Roosevelt, the infamous explorer, Morgan Stanley, Joseph Conrad, who wrote “The Heart of Darkness”, Rudyard Kipling, who wrote “The Jungle Book” and “The White Man’s Burden”, and the impact of the Tarzan books and films. Keim explains that the racist and ethnocentrist views we have about Africa have been built up over many centuries and in his writings he offers us some critical tools for deconstructing them.

Read these chapters carefully. They are foundational to the ideas that we will continue to deal with throughout this course.

Lea rn ing Ob jec t i ves 

6/18/24, 5:56 PM Module 2 Overview: ARH4520 RVBB 1245 1/2

C o u r s e L e a r n i n g O b j e c t i v e s Ta r g e t e d

List course level objectives targeted

M o d u l e L e a r n i n g O b j e c t i v e s


Ac t i v i t i e s and Ass ignmen ts Review the following:

1. Read:

1. Ch 1, “Introducing Africa” and Ch 2, “The Development and Study of African Art.” Willet, Frank. African Art. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2002. (

2. “Africans Live in Tribes, Don’t They?” in Keim, Curtis. Mistaking Africa: Curiosities and Inventions of the American Mind. Boulder: Westview Press, 2009. (

2. Complete Module 2 Discussion 3. Complete Module 2 Assignment

The instructional material listed above will help you understand expectations related to this module’s topics, achieve the learning objectives and complete the assignment(s).

Conceptual Foundations of African Art

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