South of the Sahara: Selected Works of African Art

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Constantine Petridis. South of the Sahara: Selected Works of African Art. Cleveland: Cleveland Museum of Art, 2003. Distributed by the University of Washington Press. 128 pp. Illustrations. Map. Bibliography. $45.00. Cloth. $30.00. Paper.

This beautifully illustrated and scholarly work is a fitting celebration of the newly reinstalled African collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art. Constantine Petridis, its associate curator of African art and professor of art history at case Western Reserve University, analyzes forty-two works by artists of thirty different cultures. Petridis succeeds in integrating a vast body of scholarship on general concepts of African art with reflections on the cultural contexts of the specific works featured in the book.

Each work of art is reproduced in a full-page color plate, and most are accompanied by a small photograph of a similar object being worn or used in its African context. Notes include a description of the object, the ethnic group and geographical location of origin, the object's period, material (s) and size, the name of the donor, and the date the museum acquired the object. Several bibliographical references are given for further reading about each work. The collection's emphasis is on West and central Africa, the two regions that have produced the most important sculptural art traditions. While most of the objects are figurative sculptures and masks, there are also a few examples of beadwork. The zones represented are the Western Sudan, the Guinea Coast, Nigeria, the Cameroon Grassfields, and the Congo Basin.

In his introductory essay, "Faces and Figures of Sub-Saharan Africa," Petridis provides a brief overview of the history of African art in the Cleveland Museum, citing acquisitions and exhibits from as early as 1915. Significant curators and donors are also mentioned. The author then delineates several broad and controversial concepts that have had a major impact on the understanding of African art, including the geographical concept of "sub-Saharan" Africa and the role of sculpture in African society. The latter is connected to the labeling of African art as "craft" as opposed to "fine art." In the section on history, the author points to a general confusion and misunderstanding about the age of African art objects, offering as an example the "dating of objects based on their acquisition or collection history rather than on objective and scientifically supported dating techniques" (19). Another concept he discusses is style, which has been used to classify as well as to date works of African art. The challenge to art historians is that "the ethnic names given to sub-Saharan works of art merely refer to their style but do not necessarily offer a clue to their actual origin" (21). …