Art that Dies: Iconoclasm, Transformation, and Renewal in African Art

Collaborative Group

Professor Elisabeth L. Cameron, Professor Zoe S. Strother


History of Art and Visual Culture


The short life for many African art objects is commonly misattributed to climatic conditions. In fact, “African art time” often presupposes an expectation on the part of makers and users that an object has a specific lifespan, ending in a form of death and rebirth. This project explores the “cultural biography” of works of art and the reasons why they may be intentionally destroyed, transformed and renewed. It shows how periodic episodes of destruction are frequently pivotal to the creation of new artistic forms. Despite widespread destruction, certain African societies have sought to create enduring objects, of which the Benin bronzes are the most famous. The goal is to analyze motives for creating both ephemeral and permanent works of art in diverse West and Central African societies.

The collaborators bring complementary research experience in different parts of Africa to the project and by joining forces will be able to present cross-cultural and historical data in West and Central Africa. The research will culminate in the publication of a scholarly treatise (collaboratively argued in single-authored essays) and the mounting of an exhibition at The Museum for African Art in New York.

Award period: July 1, 2009 – June 30, 2011