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Art and Architecture

American Architecture

aesthetic values, cultural artifacts, cultural values, Western art, Westerners

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The study of the history of African art presents a number of challenges. Most surviving objects are of relatively recent origin because so much African art is made of perishable materials, such as wood or grasses. It also is subjected to vigorous use, in contrast to most Western art, which is displayed in houses or museums. Moreover, researchers have no scientific tests that can accurately date objects of relatively recent origin. In many cases, they must rely on records provided by those who collected the art.

Because early ethnographers (scientists who study human cultures) collected works of African art as cultural artifacts rather than as art, they generally failed to record the names of individual artists, precise dates for the objects, or information on why or how the objects were used. Nor did they concern themselves with the aesthetic or cultural values that Africans associated with these objects. As a result, the topics that routinely concern historians of Western art—the style and development of specific artists, the chronology of artistic trends, or the more subtle aspects of those trends—are considerably more difficult to research in studying African art.

It was not until the end of the 19th century that Western perceptions about African art began to change. A British expedition in 1897, which destroyed and looted the city of Benin, brought back a number of artifacts, and in the early 20th century other expeditions were launched to acquire objects from central Africa. These objects are now on display in museums in the West, although an effort to have them returned to Africa was underway at the turn of the 21st century. As collections of African art have grown, Westerners have gradually come to a fuller understanding of African art, its cultural functions, and its aesthetic values.


Roth, Leland M., B.Arch., M.A., Ph.D.

Marion Dean Ross Professor of Architectural History, University of Oregon. Author of "Concise History of American Architecture" and "Understanding Architecture".

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