The Elements In / Of African Art
Ever notice the earth beneath your feet, and think about how large it is? How old? Or what of the water that pours from the tap to refill your S'well bottle? It doesn't pour from every tap, though it covers three-quarters of the planet's surface, rising and falling through air in a cycle that existed long before human beings ever did. The elements—Earth, Air, Water, and an energy that, for now, we'll call Fire—are so vast and ordinary we rarely recognize them as being there at all, let alone think about them. Yet they are material things we can perceive and engage; they surround us, dwell inside us, unite and separate us, and challenge our imaginations. This course will introduce you to a few of the many and diverse ways African people imagine the elements—including the elemental, philosophical stuff of personhood—and how they transform them (and are transformed by them, too) into objects and images more readily scaled to human perception and experience. The objects and images speak of death and rebirth, power and suffering, ancestors, gods and monsters. They detail the events of past and future histories, and mark the shifting, anxious present, as humans engage their changing environment. Some of these objects, like their creators, propose to reckon with perceptions of time and space that extend beyond the human—as if the earth, say, were to think about you and your S'well bottle.
That, at any rate, is what it says on the prospectus for this First-Year Seminar. But let's take a closer look…
Your Attention, Please: I wrote the summary above some months ago: before COVID, before we were all shut-ins, before this summer of dread, violence and righteous rage, before the world had changed so quickly and completely. As I read the summary now, it seems from another time, and in need of updating. But I'm leaving it up there, because the core intentions remain in place. Know, however, that I will be updating the contents of this course as we go along, and I invite you to do that with me.
Our historical moment is one of endless distractions, and you know as well as I that it can be hard to stay focused. We live in a world where a single tweet or a 60-second video clip can set off intense chain reactions throughout the nation and around the globe, and change the texture of your day, too. In weird moments such as this (or at any time, for that matter), it's important to stay flexible, to be aware of what's around you, and responsive to the unexpected.
That means paying attention to the world—as it was at historical moments before this one, and as it is right now—drawing together histories of the past and the experience of the present to understand the world in a vibrant, critical new way.
To do this, we must also pay attention to the worlds inside ourselves (and inside others, too), not only to our intellectual responses to world-shaking events and unfamiliar course materials, but to our emotional responses as well: anxiety, anger, frustration, sadness, joy, and everything else. The world of art and images is a moving arena for the expression and consideration of the fullness and diversity of human experience through time. We, as students (I'm one too, always learning), must learn to move along with it, critically, with eyes open, asking questions, ready to respond as the moment requires.
So, I repeat this urgent call to you: Your attention, please…
And I invite you to take a few deep, slow, conscious breaths before we get started.
Required Text: There is none.
Required articles: They'll be posted on Canvas.
Very highly recommended text: