cover image The History of African Art

The History of African Art

Suzanne Preston Blier. Thames & Hudson, $18.95 (176p) ISBN 978-0-500-29625-7

Blier (Picasso’s Demoiselles), a professor of fine arts at Harvard, scrupulously traces the history of African art in this comprehensive survey. Starting in 150,000 BCE with perforated shell beads (among the “earliest known human jewelry arts”), Blier covers the Middle Ages, a “golden era” for both its artistic brilliance and the increased use of the metal in statues and other artworks; the Early Modern period, when the spread of Christianity spurred the proliferation of iconography; the colonial period, during which artists fashioned iron sculptures that were sometimes brought for luck onto battlefields; and into the “new golden age” of contemporary art, which was kicked off by “the exuberance of the 1960s rush to independence” in multiple countries across the continent and has produced such innovative pieces as a cityscape made of sugar (Meschac Gaba’s Sweetness) and an undulating patchwork quilt that evokes “vibrantly coloured Ghanian Kente textile arts” (El Anatsui’s Gravity and Grace). Rigourous descriptions of individual artworks draw out their cultural influences, as when Blier writes that Fon Hountondji’s 20th-century ship-form finial calls to mind European trade and “addresses the unconscionable relationship between the promotion of human trafficking and luxury goods... that defined court status and well-being.” A useful map and frequent photo reproductions help bring the history to palpable life. It’s an excellent resource for art buffs. Photos. (Nov.)