View a carving on display at the “Art and Life in Africa” exhibit in the University of Iowa’s Iowa Memorial Union, and you wouldn’t learn a lot.
Read the small label nearby. You’ll learn a little more. The carving is a wooden Ci Wara dance crest, made by the Bamana peoples of Mali. You wouldn’t know, though, that the crest represents an antelope carrying her young on her back.
You wouldn’t know Ci Wara is a men’s association meant to teach farming skills.
You wouldn’t be able to easily find other examples of art from the Bamana peoples or from Mali, or learn about Bamana history and culture.
With the help of a new website, however, you could learn all that and more. And if you couldn’t see the art in person, you could still take a virtual walk through the UI’s collection.
UI Professor of Art History Christopher Roy partnered with University of Iowa Museum of Art curator Catherine Hale to create the “Art and Life in Africa” site, http://africa.uima.uiowa.edu/. The accompanying exhibit is on display at the IMU’s Black Box Theatre through June 15.
Tablets are available so visitors to the display can scan QR codes on each piece of art’s label. The code takes them to the corresponding page on the website, where they can learn more and find links to further information.
All this is an effort to not only make the art more accessible, but to provide context.
“The idea is to help people understand that African cultures are rich, that they deserve our respect, that they have made key contributions to world culture,” Roy said. “It totally defies all the stereotypes, negative and positive, of African peoples.”
The UI has one of the largest university collections of African art in the country. Beyond documenting the hundreds of items in the collection, the website includes pieces and essays from museums and scholars around the world.
The website converted content from a now-outdated CD-ROM. Roy and computer scientist Linda McIntyre created the “Art and Life in Africa” CD in 1997 as a tool for educators and scholars. It brought together media and scholarly material including photographs, essays, maps and videos. Roy and Hale didn’t want the CD’s content to be lost in an Internet-era.
The new website was designed by IMU Marketing + Design, a student-staffed web development group. UI graduate student Cory Gundlach painstakingly converted the content for the Internet.
It was a huge task. He had to copy and paste each caption and essay relating to hundreds of pieces of art. The team who worked on the project also had to contact each scholar and museum who contributed to the original project to get permission to post their content online.
So far, the newly-launched website contains the information from the original CD project. But Roy said he hopes to continue adding and updating as time goes on. There is plenty of room for expansion.
“We can expand it as long and as far as we want to,” Roy said. “Roughly speaking the most recent material is 20 years old, so the goal now is to ask lots and lots of scholars to contribute.”
Additionally, the UI’s collection focuses heavily on West and Central Africa, with few pieces from Southern or Eastern African countries. Roy said scholars at the UI have started reaching out to their networks, asking them write essays and provide additional context and content.
A second phase of the project is also now underway. The Museum of Art is working with the WorldMap platform, developed at Harvard University, to digitally “pin” the objects in the collection to their points of origin on the globe. That effort will also continue to expand.
In addition to viewing the pieces geographically, people can also view the art on the site by themes, such as key moments in life, education, sacred spaces and ancient Africa. That can help scholars draw parallels and study differences across cultural lines.
Roy said having the website and the exhibit up is especially gratifying since the Flood of 2008 destroyed the UI Art Museum’s physical location. With much of the museum’s collection in storage, the Internet provides an opportunity to keep it accessible.
“We want to share with other people our knowledge of the relationship between art and peoples lives in Africa,” Roy said. “We’re very interested in spreading the word about how interesting Africa is and how rich the cultures of Africa are.”
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