Reprinted with permission
Editor's note: Until reviews of CD-ROM and other multimedia programs become sufficiently common to warrant their own departmental heading, we will be including them in the Books column.
ART AND LIFE IN AFRICA Recontextualizing African Art in the Cycle of Life
Christopher D. Roy
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Reviewed by Raymond A. Silverman
Over the past five years a handful of CD-based multimedia programs dealing with the expressive cultures of Africa have appeared on the market; none have been very exciting. Art and Life in Africa (ALA), is the first truly significant offering that deserves the attention of anyone involved in teaching the visual arts of Africa. Its creators and developers, Lee McIntyre and Christopher Roy, have successfully engaged advanced technology to create a marvelous set of resources dealing with African art that is superior to any conventional text currently available for use in the classroom.1
The CD draws upon a framework for interpreting the visual arts of Africa that Roy and his colleagues at the University of Iowa have been developing for close to twenty years. It is a thematic approach that emphasizes the various contexts in which aesthetic objects function in African societies. McIntyre and Roy have been working on ALA for several years with significant financial support from the Fund for Improvement of Post Secondary Education, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the University of Iowa.
Two modules form the heart of the CD. One is a thematic overview of how art functions in African societies. This is divided into eleven "chapters" written by various specialists in the field of African cultural studies: Ancient Africa, Arts of Healing, Abundance, Cultural Exchange, Death and the Ancestors, Divination, Education and Initiation, Everyday Endeavor, Governance and Social Order, Key Moments in Life, and Sacred Spaces. The other is a set of thirty-seven essays by leading scholars that draw upon their fieldwork in various dimensions of African art history.2 With regard to content, these essays are the most significant contribution of the CD. In many respects they offer the user the same successful balance of breadth and depth found in the essays presented in For Spirits and Kings: African Art from the Tishman Collection (edited by Susan Vogel, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1981)-an exhibition catalogue that I have found to be a most valuable teaching resource, primarily because it draws upon the expertise of authorities in the field of African art studies. Students are afforded a glimpse of how the corpus of knowledge associated with a specific discipline is created, that it is composed of the work of many individuals who approach the subjects they study in different ways. Both the thematic chapters and field research essays are sumptuously illustrated with high-quality field and museum photographs, most in color. Some essays include video and/or music audio clips. Many of the objects that accompany the text are reproduced in multiple views as many as twelve views of a single object. The user can virtually rotate some of the figurative pieces and masks. Believe it or not, ALA includes more than 10,000 images!
The CD may be used on either the Macintosh or the Windows 95/98 platform; the designers recommend 32 MB RAM for Windows and 24 MB for a Macintosh. Installing the program is very simple and takes just a few minutes. I worked with the CD on a fairly robust Windows 98 system (350 MHz, 64 MB RAM, 4 MB VRAM, 32x CD-ROM). All the components loaded quickly, and the program, for the most part, ran smoothly.
Upon launching ALA the user has the opportunity to view a brief introduction that identifies the creators and sponsors of the CD and a statement explaining the graphic motif, the Kongo cosmogram representing the "four moments of the sun," that is used to organize the contents of the thematic chapters. Alternatively the user may skip the introduction and go directly to the program's table of contents. Once one learns the basics of navigating around the CD-a small set of easily learned visual conventions is used throughout-it is very easy to move among the various modules. A virtual tabbed index card serves as the primary organizational metaphor. One has the sense of working with a vast file cabinet full of images and data pertaining to African art and culture. The designers have provided "hot links" that effectively tie these resources together.
In addition to the previously mentioned thematic overview and field research essays, the user has access to five searchable databases or catalogues dealing with the peoples of Africa, African countries, still images of African art, (multi)media (video and music clips), and a bibliography of African art. Hot links found throughout the field research essays and thematic chapters provide instant access to the country or peoples databases and to a glossary.
The entry screen for the peoples database gives the user the option of searching for information on a specific people either alphabetically or geographically, based on country name. Information on a specific people includes overviews of their history, economy, political system, and religion, as well as easy access to examples of the art they produce. The "types of art" screen offers a list of all of the reproductions of objects produced by the people included on the CD. Moving the cursor over each of the titles in the list produces a thumbnail image, an efficient means of scanning the objects. Clicking on a specific title takes one to the images catalogue and a screen that includes a larger view of the object and two or three data "cards."
Accessing the country database, the user is presented with a map of Africa. Clicking on a particular country brings up an enlarged national map that highlights ethnic groups. Clicking on any of these names takes one to the relevant information in the peoples database. Unfortunately, the maps refer only to peoples featured on the CD. The map of Zimbabwe, for instance, names the Shona alone; students might get the impression that they are the only ethnic group in Zimbabwe. It would be quite simple to situate other peoples on these maps, but provide "hot links" for only those for whom there is information. Other information for each of the countries includes basic statistical data and historical overviews of "pre-colonial" and "post-colonial" history. This conceptual framework is a bit confusing. What about colonial history? That topic is, in fact, dealt with in the pre-colonial sections. Perhaps other labels might be substituted, like "pre-independence" and "post- independence."
The images catalogue may be accessed in either a search or browse mode, and one may decide to view images of objects, field photographs, or both. In search mode, the user may look for images by choosing from five criteria: people, object type, country, function, and source. The options for each are provided in drop-down lists. As in the peoples database, after specifying the criteria that generate a list of objects, one drags the cursor over a specific title to produce a thumbnail view of the image; clicking on the title takes one to the associated record with its multiple data cards. On the left side of the screen is either a single image roughly four times as large as the thumbnail or, if a museum piece, up to twelve detailed views of the object, any of which can be enlarged to full screen size by further clicking. The CD offers reproductions of fine examples of African art held in a number of museums, including the University of Iowa Museum of Art, Detroit Institute of Arts, UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History Seattle Art Museum, National Museum of African Art (Smithsonian Institution), National Museum of Nigeria (Lagos), and Indiana University Art Museum. The first of the data cards presents basic information about the image; another card provides the reference and link to the context (field research essay or thematic chapter) in which the image is used in ALA. For some images, usually museum pieces, a third card, referred to as a "catalog entry," offers further details.
The media catalogue provides ready access to the fifteen video clips and six music recordings used in some of the thematic chapters and field research essays. Though the video clips are only eight seconds long, they successfully introduce the user to the performative dimension of African art. The music recordings are longer, lasting about two minutes. This catalogue is organized much like the images catalogue.
A comprehensive, up-to-date bibliographic database is a marvelous research resource. It can be searched by subject, people, country, field research essay, or the author's last name. Options for the first four criteria are provided in drop-down lists. Up to 100 references can be displayed at one time, and the user may either print the list or save it to disk.
Two very useful tools afford an opportunity to customize the CD: "bookmarks" and "slide show." Navigating through the CD, one may flag (bookmark) specific screens to make them readily accessible in the future. Users also may select and order images of objects, field photographs, text, and media to build a "slide show." This feature might be used in the classroom in any number of ways: for instance, a teacher might create customized presentations for students, or students can create their own reports on specific subjects.
Finally, there are two print options available. At most locations in the CD one can either print the screen -- that is, create a hardcopy image of exactly what is on the screen or print a text-only version.
I had the opportunity to use ALA last year in an upper-level west African art history class. Meeting with my students in a university computer lab, I introduced them to the various modules, tools, and resources, and suggested some ways in which they might use the CD during the term. I also assigned specific field research essays from ALA to complement lectures and reading assignments. Admittedly I came nowhere near exploiting the full potential of this tool. The course evaluations administered at the end of the term revealed that the students really appreciated the CD. In fact, a number of them commented that it was far more valuable than the textbook. They also used the field research essays, bibliography, and image database as a point of departure for their research papers. Some students noted that it would be useful if one could print an entire multipage essay with a single command-a good suggestion.3 At present one has to print one screen at a time.
A teacher might, in an advanced-technology-equipped classroom, utilize the CD to augment lectures. As mentioned earlier, one possibility might be a "slide show" presentation of specific images and text. But I see ALA as being most effective when used by the individual student. One of the exciting things about a program like this one is that there is room for creativity on the part of both teacher and student in using it to enhance the understanding of African art and society.
McIntyre and Roy obtained a good deal of feedback while testing prototypes of the CD. As a result ALA does not have many of the problems one often encounters with a first generation program, and its quality is impressive. However, I do have a few observations that the developers might think about for the next version.
Although ALA is quite remarkable in the breadth of its coverage of many of Africa's aesthetic traditions, it is not comprehensive. As with most survey texts dealing with the visual arts of Africa, emphasis is placed on the peoples and cultures of the western and central parts of the continent. There are essays and images concerning a number of southern and east African traditions, but the CD provides very little information about northeast Africa, and nothing about ancient Egypt or north Africa.
ALA also fails to address twentieth-century academic art. Basically ignored by Western students of African art until recently, it is now recognized as an important dimension of African expressive culture. One of the top priorities for the next version of the program might be a thematic chapter and a couple of essays on this topic.
The program's most significant shortcoming is the absence of dates for all but a few of the hundreds of objects presented, even for the historical pieces. Dates are offered neither in the captions to images in the thematic chapters and field research essays nor in the information that accompanies the reproductions in the image database. I was unable to find any rationale for this omission.
ALA is very easy to use and does not require a great deal of direction. Nevertheless, the developers could have been more generous with online help-the program offers only three screens of "tips." A bit more information is offered in the jewel-box liner notes, but even this may not be sufficient for some users. A complementary website developed for the project provides more information, but disappointingly, the CD itself does not adequately emphasize it. The only references are in the liner notes and in the credits screen. The website is extremely important, because, unlike the CD, it is a dynamic resource. For example, it is being used to provide additional information about the CD, especially to secondary school teachers. Of special interest is an online guide that offers suggestions about using it in the classroom.4 The site also serves as a forum for those teaching with ALA. The address is http://www.uiowa.edu/-africart. A hotlink to the site, prominently positioned in the CD, would be ideal.
Another aspect of the relationship between the CD and its website concerns the ability to integrate the two. It is now possible to set "hooks" in a CD that can be accessed from the Internet. Students, in effect, could use a web based application created by an instructor that would reference the resources available on the CD. Again, this is something that might be built into a future version of ALA.
The glossary mentioned earlier seems to be directed to a secondary-school audience. Though a good idea, its implementation leaves a bit to be desired. I found the selection of terms rather haphazard. The rationale for inclusion was not clear. For instance, in the cultural-exchange chapter of the essay dealing with recycling, basic words like "dire" and "prominent" are highlighted (included in the glossary), while a term like "syncretism" is not. This problem is found throughout the thematic chapters and field research essays.
Finally, the program does not have a built-in note-taking feature. This shortcoming is not a serious one, since it is simple enough to launch a program like Windows Notebook or Wordpad, or one's favorite word-processing application, before beginning to use ALA, and then simply toggle back and forth between the two. However, since the simultaneous use of two or more programs (multitasking) exceeds the skills of many computer users, it would be useful to build a note-taking feature into the program.
These criticisms are insignificant when weighed against the groundbreaking pedagogical contribution the ALA CD represents. The success of any multimedia program is based on the effective integration of content and design. Art and Life in Africa has managed to accomplish this, offering teacher and student the first viable multimedia resource for learning about the visual arts of Africa. It delivers a tremendous amount of accurate, up-to-date textual and visual information by means of a well-conceived, intuitive user interface. Presenting the student with a marvelous interactive environment, this CD has succeeded in exploiting the potential of new computer-based technologies and has taken the teaching of African art into the Information Age.
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1. I participated as one of the contributors to the field research essays included on the CD. However, I wish to point out that I have absolutely no vested interest in promoting it.
2. Here is a list of the authors and titles of the thirty-seven essays: Martha Anderson, "Art from the Ijo Spirit World"; Mary Jo Arnoldi, "Puppet Masquerades in the Valley of the Niger"; Lisa Aronson, "Weaving in Southern Nigeria"; Barbara Blackmun, "Art and Rule in the Benin Kingdom"; Arthur Bourgeois, "Art and Initiation among the Yaka and Suku"; Herbert Cole, "Mban: Art as Process in Igboland"; Herbert Cole, "Igbo Art in Social Context"; Joseph Cornet, "Kuba Art and Rule"; Kathy Curnow, "Benin Kingdom Leadership Regalia"; Henry Drewal, "Yonaba Gelede Masquerade"; Margaret Thompson Drewal, "Yoruba Performance"; Kate Ezra, "Bamana Art and Initiation"; Barbara Frank, "Bamana Women's Pottery"; Michelle Gilbert, "Akan Leadership Art and Ceremony"; Anita Glaze,"Art and Death in a Senufo Village"; Rachel Hoffman, "Textiles in Mali"; HansJoachim Koloss, "Royal Art in the Cameroon Grasslands"; Sandra Klopper, "Young Women in Contemporary Zulu Society"; Manuel Jordan, "Art and Initiation in Western Zambia"; Patrick McNaughton, "Art of the Bamana Blacksmith"; Dime Pehine, "Art and Life Among the Zaramo of Tanzania"; John Pemberton III, "Ifa Divination"; Ruth Phillips, Henrietta Cosentino, and Rebecca Busselle, "Women's Art and Initiation in Mendeland"; Donna Pido, "Art among the Maasai of Kenya"; Allen Roberts, "Islam and Islamic Art in Africa"; Allen Roberts, "The Status of Dogon Visual Culture"; Mary Nooter Roberts, "Luba Art and Divination"; Doran Ross, "Akan Leadership Arts"; Doran Ross, "Military Arts of the Fante"; Christopher Roy, "Nature, Spirits and Arts in Burkina Faso"; Enid Schildkrout, "Mangbetu Royal Art and Herbert Lang, 1902-1906"; William Siegmann, "Masquerades Among the Dan People"; Raymond Silverman, "Akan Brass Casting"; Fred Smdth, "Art and Architecture in Northern Ghana"; Robert Soppelsa, "Art and Death in Southern Cote d'Ivoire"; Zoe Strother, "Art and Masquerading among the Pencle"; Norma Wolff, "Art and Death in a Yomba Community."
3. I noticed many students printing much of the text-intensive material they encountered on the computer. This may be due, in part, to the fact that not all students had ready access to a computer.
4. The teacher's guide also is available in hardcopy from the University of Iowa Art and Life in Africa Project.