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Community: Building Bridges

African Art and the Internet

This article was originally published in African Arts (Summer 1999, vol. 32, no. 2) and appears courtesy of African Arts, The James S. Coleman African Studies Center, University of California, Los Angeles.

by: Michael W. Conner (Southern University at New Orleans) and Raymond A. Silverman (Michigan State University)

The Internet is already having a profound impact on the lives of most students of African expressive culture. In this new era of communication, information, both raw and cooked, is becoming more accessible, prevalent, and infinitely diverse. We would like to review some of the new electronic media and resources, especially as they have been applied in the field of African art studies, and offer a few thoughts about the opportunities and challenges they present.[1]

Physical distance itself is rendered almost irrelevant by the tremendous speed of the Internet. Through electronic mail and the World Wide Web, scholars virtually anywhere can sustain a level of global interaction with colleagues that would have been inconceivable just a few years ago. For example, a member of the H-AfrArts Listserv (an e-mail-based discussion forum) recently requested information about the mermaid-like spirit Mami Wata.[2] Over the course of several days, she received a host of replies from Africa, Europe, and the Americas. Members of the list were treated to current data about Mami Wata worship not only in West Africa but also in Brazil, Haiti, and the U.S.

Information posted on the Internet can be easily amended, but it is no more ephemeral than material published on paper. All the messages presented in the Mami Wata exchange, for instance, were archived in a searchable online database that anyone-not just H-AfrArts subscribers-may access at any time.[3] Digital information is much easier to retrieve and preserve than information on paper media, and we expect the H-AfrArts searchable database to grow into a valuable research tool. In fact, many Web sites are being conceived as permanent resources, and new bibliographic conventions have been developed so that students and scholars can properly cite the information maintained there.[4]

With all these changes, how has the Internet affected the publishing industry? Paper books are relatively expensive to produce and conserve. The cost of journals is increasing at the same time that library funds to purchase them are shrinking. On the other hand, today there are more than 1,465 electronic journals, and library allocations for these digital resources are on the rise.[5] The ubiquity of electronic information has also forced publishers to reevaluate how they distribute textbooks and ancillary materials. Motivated by competition and consumer demand for multimedia and interactivity, they are embracing both the CD-ROM and the Web, creating WWW sites complete with links to current information that has been organized to supplement the disks slipped into the backs of textbooks.

It is important to understand that successful electronic publication is not simply the printed word and image ported over to a digital medium such as a CD. Electronic documents are unique in their flexibility and functionality. They offer new vehicles for disseminating and retrieving the information they contain. Scholars gain more control over how a source document can be used-whether it is read, searched, or merged with other information.

The CD is somewhat like a book in that once it is "burned" (created), the content cannot be changed, but the way it is accessed and integrated into other documents can be manipulated to some extent. The first commercial CD produced in the field of African art history was Illinois State University's The African Collection, scripted by Edward Meckstroth, Linda Giles, and Allan Richards in 1996; a multiplatform version was published in 1998. Meckstroth had originally wanted to produce a traditional printed exhibition catalogue with color plates, but he found that the electronic alternative was less expensive, and it would allow him to include word pronunciations, hyperlinked text, interactive maps, and QTVR (QuickTime Virtual Reality) rotations of objects. In 1998 Christopher Roy and Lee McIntyre at the University of Iowa released their robust Art and Life in Africa to complement an exhibition catalogue of the same name.[6] And this fall, Indiana University Press expects to release the CD Five Windows into Africa to complement its third edition of Africa, edited by Phyllis Martin and Patrick O'Meara. The Africa CD set will contain multimedia resources relevant to five disciplines, including important sections on African art history co-authored by Patrick McNaughton and Diane Pelrine and a section on popular art by dele jegede.

None of these first-generation African art CDs were designed to link to a dedicated Web site. However, the advantages of being able to download updates on materials permanently burned onto the CD, or plug into current literature on the Web, or communicate electronically with other CD users, are far too great to overlook. In fact, a portion of the content of the Art and Life in Africa CD is already mirrored on a University of Iowa Web site. Art and Life in Africa Online has the potential to evolve into a true bridge between these two kinds of digital resources, one permanent and the other easily changed.[7] Even if these CDs did not exist, the Web itself has the potential to carry the same content in an infinitely expanding format.

One can think of the Internet as a pyramid of digital information built of countless Web sites, news groups, and discussion lists, each with a different perspective. At its base are minimally interactive advertisements and static resources, and at its pinnacle are service sites, whose authors continually update and maintain sets of specialized information. The most elaborate Web sites have a commercial function and are positioning themselves to compete in a global business environment. The Web has profoundly affected the way African art is marketed and collected. At various online auction sites, armchair investors and collectors bid around the clock, unfettered by physical location, on a kaleidoscope of Africa-related "antiques." Renowned auction houses such as Christie's International PLC and Sotheby's Holdings Inc. plan to hold important sales online.[8]

Even the ads in this journal are peppered with WWW addresses (URLs) where dealers list their services, illustrate current inventory, and communicate with their customers. Besides attracting visitors with compelling images of African art, these sites often offer interesting tidbits of collection data and background information about some of their pieces.[9]

A typical search of the Web for "African art" will bring up URLs created by practitioners of African religion, academics, artists, and institutions, like museums. Sites maintained by artists, art dealers, collectors, and other quasi-commercial interests have a mission different from those dedicated to scholarship. Anyone can present or publish almost anything on the Web. Even within the purview of scholarship, it is becoming more and more difficult to distinguish between the real world and purely virtual constructs. Web sites created to augment current art exhibitions later become virtual artifacts with an Internet life of their own. One can create virtual exhibitions (and virtual museums) that have never had a real-world presence at all.[10]

The Web's cornucopia of information has already had a dramatic impact on education. Teachers must make a serious investment of time to master Internet tools. They often find themselves scrambling to meet the challenge of students accessing resources far more current than the course textbook, and they sometimes feel they are losing control over the materials their students are exposed to. Faced with this enormous variety of information, the latter are taking a more active role in their own education. This is apparently a burden they readily accept, for a recent survey of computer use by college freshmen in the U.S., sponsored by the American Council on Education and the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA, revealed that 83% use the Internet for their research or homework. Many teachers are seeing term papers in which 90% to 100% of the citations are from the Web. These papers are peppered with blocks of quoted text and color images pulled from Internet resources whose quality is extremely uneven.[11] The indisputable convenience of online research has resulted in a steady decline in physical library research. As the editors of H-AfrArts, we have received numerous requests for information on a wide range of subjects from both undergraduates and graduates who apparently have made very little if any effort to use a library. It is frightening to realize that we are already dealing with a generation of students who believe that if it is not on the Web it doesn't exist. Convincing them that only a very small fraction of our knowledge about the arts of Africa is available on the Internet and that they must continue to utilize the traditional resources is a pedagogical challenge that will be with us for a while.

It is the automated, asynchronous nature of electronic media that ultimately may have the greatest impact on the way we study and teach African art. An Asynchronous Learning Network (ALN) enables people to learn anywhere and at any time. The Internet-based learning experience is becoming an attractive alternative to traditional instruction, which is bound to a specific time and location. A few prophets have even suggested that the brick-and-mortar classroom will eventually be replaced altogether. ALNs are not discussion lists, e-mail systems, PowerPoint presentations, or teleconferencing transmissions. They are virtual classrooms where learners separated by time and space are brought together by common interests and electronic communication. Students work with remote learning resources and have one-on-one access to their instructors and to other classmates, but they do not have to all be online at the same time.

Each semester since 1996, one of our colleagues, Arthur Bourgeois at Governors State University in Wisconsin, has offered a course, Worlds of Art, using the ALN model.[12] Bourgeois's students access materials on the class Web site and use the required text and other resources to compare art objects from eight different cultures, including several from Africa. Individuals with expertise in each of the geographical areas periodically go online to answer questions and help stimulate class discussion. The actual physical location of the students is of no significance. Once a week Bourgeois convenes an online chat session with his class as a whole, and at all other times he maintains one-on-one e-mail contact. Has Bourgeois's use of technology compromised his effectiveness or his mission as a teacher?

The fear that advanced technology may dictate what it is we do or how we do it will certainly be a self-fulfilling prophecy unless we master these new resources. Perhaps the next step is simply finding the time to learn and exploit them. At the most fundamental level, many of us already have had to allow for at least an hour or two of e-mail activity in our daily routines. Global access to Internet-based information inevitably draws scholars and teachers into a wider and thus more time-consuming dialogue with the public.

The sheer volume of e-mail and information available online can overwhelm users, but tools that allow us to more efficiently manipulate and digest Web-based materials are being developed. E-mail programs have built-in filtering and automatic filing capabilities; library databases can be searched and specific records directly imported and automatically catalogued into personal bibliography software; many online information resources will routinely scan their databanks and send or "push" to a user new information that conforms to self-selected criteria; wordprocessing programs automatically prepare documents for Web publication without the author's having to learn the hypertext mark-up language (HTML). Web search engines are also getting smarter. Many can query the Internet using sentences couched in everyday language, some can translate documents from one language into another, and software programs can collect and save entire sites for later offline viewing.

Although it may be getting easier to tap the lode of information on the Web, the appropriate handling of intellectual property rights can be a stumbling block for those who work with these resources. Researchers should treat documents and graphic images published on the Web much the same as copyrighted material published on paper. However, the ease with which the former can be produced and reproduced has led many copyright holders to refuse or severely limit use. The standards of fair use often govern decisions concerning copyright. But these are not clear-cut criteria, and they are frequently interpreted differently.[13] For instance, one interpretation of the clause pertaining to the use of copyrighted material for educational purposes has led some institutions to sanction the creation of in-house image databases and Web sites that are accessible only to students currently enrolled at that institution. All of us must strive to interpret fair use as generously as possible until everyone better understands the similarities and differences between Web and print publication. This is also important if we are to foster equal access to information to and from African nations-which takes us to the final and perhaps most important issue: Will our African colleagues be able to participate in this global electronic dialogue?

Academics at most universities in the U.S. now take for granted a fast, free connection to the Web, both at work and at home. Not everyone has equal access to this technology. There is an ever present danger that the Information Age will create an Information Elite both in this country and elsewhere. Too many of our colleagues in Africa do not have adequate access to the Internet.[14] Computer-mediated communication between Africa and the U.S. holds great potential for cultural exchange, but this must be a two-way proposition. Establishing computer literacy and free connectivity to the Internet in Africa should be a mutual venture and an important component of the United States-Africa economic development policy. It should also remain in the forefront of any academic initiatives for working in Africa. H-Net (Humanities and Social Sciences Online) is presently attempting to provide hardware and train computer personnel in four countries, located in four different regions of Africa, to create "mirror sites" for the H-Net family of discussion lists and WWW sites.[15] Concurrently, a coalition of four organizations-H-Net, the Kennedy Center, the University of Wisconsin, and the Arts Council of the African Studies Association-is laying plans to pioneer a Web-based international clearinghouse of information that will facilitate cultural touring and exchange opportunities for African artists.

So what will be our discipline's greatest challenge in the next decade? We believe it will be to successfully integrate all forms of electronic publication and communication into our professional lives. The Internet and other forms of computer-assisted learning offer an exciting and constantly expanding range of opportunities. These will require us to rethink what we do and how we do it. The technical resources for the rapid exchange of information are in place, but we remain far from exploiting their full potential.

Certainly, electronic publication offers an exciting alternative to traditional hardcopy. Electronic publications are easily distributed and amended, but this innate plasticity of the medium also makes them appear more tentative and less authoritative. To be truly accepted by academia, authors who publish their research electronically must be recognized for their contributions in their fields. This can only happen if the same rigorous review processes that are now associated with traditional publication media are imposed on e-publications. There is no reason why this should not happen. Learned societies with a Web presence, such as ACASA, have to play an increasingly important role as gatekeepers for their academic communities. H-AfrArts, both the discussion list and Web site, was established to harness the new technology for the benefit of all students of African expressive culture. If you are interested in the arts of Africa and have not already subscribed to H-AfrArts, think about doing so.[16] The proliferation of Internet resources has been truly awesome, even overwhelming. It will continue. It is not a fad. Many have chosen not to engage this technology, some because they are afraid of it, some because they simply do not have time for it. But now that this Pandora's Box has been opened there is no closing it. We must make sure that it does not end up dictating what we do, but that we harness its potential as a set of tools that can be used to enhance our lives as scholars, teachers, and students of African expressive culture.

Notes

1. For up-to-date analyses of these information technologies, see the online quarterly Learning Technologies Report http://node.on.ca/ltreport/.

2. H-AfrArts is a discussion list and Web site http://h-net.msu.edu/~artsweb co-sponsored by the Arts Council of the African Studies Association (ACASA) and Humanities and Social Sciences Online (H-Net). It serves as the primary Internet forum for students of African art.

3. The Internet address for the H-AfrArts archive (discussion logs) is, http://h-net2.msu.edu/logs/logs.cgi?list=H-AfrArts.

4. For information on how to properly cite Web-based resources in a bibliography, see Melvin Page, A Brief Citation Guide for Internet Resources in History and the Humanities http://www.h-net.msu.edu/about/citation/ , Janice R. Walker, MLA-Style Citations of Internet Sources http://www.cas.usf.edu/english/walker/mla.html or http://www.columbia.edu/cu/ cup/cgos/idx_basic.html.

5. See the Association of Research Libraries' Directory of Electronic Journals, Newsletters & Academic Discussion Lists, New Seventh Edition http://www.arl.org:591/index.html.

6. Christopher Roy, Art and Life in Africa: Selections from the Stanley Collection. Iowa City: The University of Iowa Museum of Art, 1985.

7. L. Lee McIntyre and Christopher D. Roy, "Art and Life in Africa Online" http://www.uiowa.edu/~africart/toc/index.html.

8. Examples include eBay http://www.ebay.com/, Sotheby's http://www.sothebys.com/, Christie's http://www.christies.com/ and Yahoo African Tribal Art Club http://clubs.yahoo.com/clubs/africantribalart.

9. See, for example, Charles Jones African Art http://www.cjartafrica.com/.

10. See, for example, Benjamin Ray's African Art: Aesthetics and Meaning. An Electronic Exhibition Catalog http://www.lib.virginia.edu/dic/exhib/93.ray.aa/African.html. The first online exhibition by an art historian soon followed, Michael Conner's Cutting to the Essence, Shaping for the Fire http://www.fa.indiana.edu:80/~conner/africart/home.html. This was recently translated into Portuguese by Ricardo A. G. Almeida http://fa.indiana.edu/~conner/africart.

11. The disparity in quality can provide an excellent opportunity for teachers to engage students in exercises that develop critical skills in reading, looking at, and listening to virtually anything, not just material presented on the Web.

12. Arthur Bourgeois, Worlds of Art http://www.govst.edu/users/gbourge/syllabus/worlds.htm.

13. There are a number of Web sites devoted to the discussion of intellectual property in the digital environment. See, for example, http://fairuse.stanford.edu/ or the National Initiative for a Networked Cultural Heritage's, Copyright, Fair Use & Licensing in a Digital World http://www.ninch.org/ ISSUES/COPYRIGHT.html or information offered by the Copyright Management Center at Indiana University, Purdue University, Indianapolis http://www.iupui.edu/it/copyinfo/

14. Though there is a considerable disparity between the resources available in the U.S. and Africa, a good deal of Web-based activity has been going on in Africa. For instance, a number of fine Web sites are maintained by African museums. See, for example, Tanzania's Sukuma Museum site located at http://photo.net/sukuma/

15. Such "mirror sites" are exact copies of the data maintained on the H-Net servers (computers) located at Michigan State University. The physical presence of this data on computers strategically situated in Africa makes the information delivered via H-Net much easier and less expensive to access in Africa.

16. To subscribe to the H-AfrArts discussion list, complete the subscription form found on the H-AfrArts WWW site, http://h-net2.msu.edu/~artsweb/welcome/subscribe.html. [an error occurred while processing this directive]