As a child artworks enthralled me. They seemed to struggle to speak, to whisper about their times, their landscapes, the people that roamed the roads in those days when everything was as different as the characters in a fairy tale are from real people. But the eye could never understand all by just gazing at this window into a world as far away as the mirror image at the bottom of a deep well. This feeling never left me completely, but I came to understand that works of art must be helped, not by the imagination, but by the retrieval of as full an historical setting as research can uncover.
This is as true for Africa as for any other continent. And yet how often are works of African art viewed as if they came from nowhere, as if they did not raise questions about where and when they were created? Even today most commentaries deal only with ethnographic context or parallel, and with form. How often they therefore remain flawed and shallow! Still, on the whole the concerns, goals and tools of art history are beginning to appear in the study of art in Africa, albeit as timidly as the first crocuses appear after the tide of winter. And yet an awareness of the historical setting needs to permeate all research about art, if art is to make sense at all. The greatest masterpiece is timeless only because it captures the evanescent spirit of its own time. Art cannot properly be understood at all without history. This book has grown out of that conviction.
Several scholars have read and generously commented on this manuscript in earlier forms. It is a pleasure to thank Professors J. Watrous and F. Neyt, Dr D. Henige who read and commented on the whole manuscript as well as Professor S. Feierman who shared his thoughts about the chapters dealing with society and culture. I also owe a debt of gratitude towards the sometimes intemperate reviewer for Longman whose frankness was enhanced by his anonymity. The book, I hope, is better because of his comments. So thanks to J.P. also. I have been greatly assisted in the background work for this book by the assistants, especially Dr B. Fulks, who helped me with the teaching of a course on art history in Africa. The manuscript became clear thanks to the superior skills of Mrs Rosso who typed it. But the text is only part of such a book. The individuals and the institutions who graciously allowed me to reproduce their photographs in this book should not be forgotten in any acknowledgements. The list of illustrations records their names. The Vilas Research Fund of Madison (Wisconsin) is also gratefully remembered. Its support gave me time to think and write while providing some of the necessary travel funds as well.
And then I come to the collaborators. First Claudine, whose talents produced all the drawings, diagrams and maps. She has been the most . . .