Art and Life in Africa. University of Iowa Press.
Reviewed by George H. Ulrich
Published on H-AfrTeach (January, 2000)
The University of Iowa <i>Art and Life in Africa Project</i> CD-ROM is an extraordinarily valuable contribution to all levels of education. The ALA CD-ROM includes ten thousand images of six hundred objects along with clear, concise maps and thirty-six informative essays. Additionally, there are fifteen video clips, six music recordings, and seven hundred and fifty field photographs documenting one hundred and seven cultures in twenty-seven nations. This constitutes a very extensive database dedicated to African art, in an easy to learn accessible format. <p> I began my introduction to the ALA CD by using the introductory animated Kongo Cosmogram of the Four Moments of the Sun. This is a very inviting way to be introduced to the body of the project. The Cosmogram introduces eleven "chapters" which contextualize, or more accurately "recontextualize," African art objects. These chapters include Abundance, Education/Initiation, Everyday Endeavor, Key Moments in Life, Governance, Death, Arts of Healing, Divination, Ancient Africa, Sacred Spaces and Cultural Exchange. Each chapter contains a wealth of textual, visual and auditory data to which I will return shortly. <p> There are certain technical or mechanical features that I found slightly frustrating. It is not possible to capture an image separately from the screen. Rather, an entire page must be printed. Also, it is not possible to paint, copy and paste a section of text. This is a very useful, if not necessary, feature for compiling a body of lecture notes. As with the image capture feature, the entire section must be printed as a block. It is not possible (at least I could not find a way to do it) to minimize the screen so I found myself having to close the program and reloading it frequently. Finally, there is limited enlargement potential for most of the photos and the video clips are quite short but nevertheless valuable. <p> Perhaps the single most frustrating technical aspect of the ALA Project CD-ROM is the inability to search by object. For example, if I have a word "Gelede" but no geographic or cultural context for it, there appears to be no way to simply search "Gelede" and come up with a list of Chapters where it occurs. Without a search tool I do not know if I should look in "Abundance," "Death," or some other chapter for information. When working with Version 6, Grolier's Multimedia Encyclopedia, I was able to type "Gelede" into a keyword search and obtain a reference that took me to Yoruba, Nigeria, and to the masquerade context of Gelede masks. It would be very useful for future versions of this Project to include a search feature of this nature. <p> On a more positive note, however, the CD-ROM loads very quickly and works smoothly using a contemporary machine. Navigation between images, chapters and so forth is smooth and can be mastered very quickly by most secondary school students and more advanced primary school children. Also, the use of the ALA (Art and Life in Africa) website is an extremely useful tool, especially for teachers. <p> Each section, or chapter, has visual and textual information on the subject matter and provides a number of ethnographic examples. The text associated with field photographs is clear, concise and comprehensible. A number of "hot links" are provided within a chapter that moves the user to more in depth treatments of the culture or object being studied. For example, I began a search under the chapter titled "Abundance" (not being quite sure what was encompassed under this heading) and discovered that it dealt at length with female fertility. An excellent image of a Djenne terra cotta maternity figure was revealed and could be rotated to show several different views; a feature that accompanies many of the images included in the CD. Additional images of other Djenne figures were obtained by clicking on the "Djenne" hot link. <p> The text accompanying images in the various chapters is, as I mentioned, understandable by most readers and certainly by secondary school users. However the excellent selection of essays provided in ALA is more technical in nature and may not be very useful to younger users. <p> A useful but at the same time curious feature of the ALA CD is a glossary of hot links imbedded in chapter texts. I say curious because of some words that perhaps should be given definition are not, while more obvious words are included. For example, In the text associated with the chapter on "Cultural Exchange" the word "exoticization" is used but not provided with a hot link where as the word "homage" is given definition. <p> As mentioned above, the photographs (especially those of museum objects) are very well done and in many cases several views of the same object are provided as well as rotation. However, I found that many of the field photographs, especially those in black and white, are very dark and hard to read. The video clips accompanying the objects and cultural selections are tantalizing brief but well done, as are the music clips. <p> It is my impression while using this resource, that the "recontextualization" of cultural categories is confusing. This may well be a function of my "old fashioned" way of organizing African art, usually by culture area but also by more clear (for me) categories such as rites of passage, or leadership/social status. For example, I am not certain why an Asante stool is incorporated into the chapter on "Arts of Healing" other than that it is an example of "spirit embodiment." I would, however, never expect to find a stool of this type in a section ostensibly about healing. I suspect, however, that students who learn about African art through the ALA CD will find the organization less confusing than I do and will become accustomed to locating objects in a number of different chapters. <p> Summing up, I believe this tool to be invaluable in the classroom in spite of the rather minor criticisms I have noted. The richness of sound, sight and scholarship more than outweigh simple technical and minor content problems. Secondary school teachers will find the sides show features and the teacher's guide especially valuable, as is the link to the ALA Online that includes new images and essays, contemporary issues, and a pronunciation guide. The reader is referred to a recent review by Raymond Silverman that appears in the spring 1999 issue of <i>African Arts</i> Magazine.
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