I was delighted to teach Visual Cultures of West Africa to a group of about 60 students last Spring quarter. Although my research focuses on Contemporary Art from Africa and Its Diasporas, this class challenged me to further limit my study to a particular geographical region and to work with students who were studying Africa for the very first time. In order to gauge where my students stood, I had them write a letter to me on the first day of class to let me know which HAVC courses they have taken, if any, and if they had any prior knowledge about Africa. After reading their letters (and through teaching throughout the quarter), it became clear to me that I would need to tailor the course content to best serve and include students with diverse backgrounds, disciplines, and learning styles.
One of my favorite classes focused on the debate between the retention or repatriation of art from Africa, which is a current issue in the field. To have students consider the complexities of the debate, I had students first examine the case with the Benin Bronzes, a group of works that were looted by the British during the Punitive Expedition in the 1890s and currently exhibited in museums in the United States and Europe. Then, I had students break into small groups, with each student playing a different role, such as a museum curator based in Africa and a private collector based in Europe. By discussing what they believed to be the motivations of each role, I think students were able to better grasp the difficulties regarding retention and repatriation in an active, engaging way.
Towards the end of the quarter, I was also able to invite to class Amanda M. Maples, the Curator of African Art at the North Carolina Museum of Art and a graduate from UCSC’s Visual Studies Ph.D. Program, with the generous support of the Patricia and Roland Rebele endowment. Maples gave a guest lecture on urban masquerade in Freetown, Sierra Leone, which afforded students and me the opportunity to learn about contemporary masquerade practices, as well as to have a discussion on ethical field work and exhibition practices. As a graduate student in the beginning stages of researching and writing the dissertation, Maples’s lecture was a helpful reminder for me to handle art and visual culture coming from Africa with care, consideration, and sensitivity.
This course introduces students to the arts and visual cultures of west Africa, including permanent arts such as architecture and sculpture, and ephemeral arts, like masquerades and performances. Moreover, it examines the construction of African art history, as well as issues and current controversies pertinent to the field. Different disciplines, such archaeology, art history, history, and anthropology, are utilized to understand the relationships between peoples living in this complex area and the relationships of their visual culture.
“Kristen was very passionate and knowledgeable on the information she presented in class. She provided many good films and outside resources to further our learning.”
“Kristen had a strong understanding of the material. What I found most useful was how she structured her lectures, which for me was helpful, rather than jumping around.”
“I found the reviews from the previous lecture before every class extremely useful. It helped either remind me of what the previous class about and really set the right framework for what we were about talk about or it helped me know what i had missed if i had been absent the previous class.
Overall, the professor’s enthusiasm and evident in each class which made the overall experience wonderful.”
Photo credit: https://joyofmuseums.com/