Digital Art History and African Art

I am just joining the discussion of Digital Art History and its application of new methodologies to the grandiose discipline that is Art History. It seems that DAH scholars find the distinction between Digital and ‘Analog’ Art History ironic and even pointless. Ben Zweig emphasizes that Digital Art History is the use of analytic techniques enabled by computational technologies to expand our understandings of images, objects, and culture itself. It is ultimately one method for ‘doing’ Art History, albeit a method that is underutilized given the prevalence of technology in popular culture. But, as Johanna Drucker explains, it is a method like any other within the discipline and its application can allow for new ways to engage with art and its history. So why separate it from the overall discipline? Why offer one class in DAH rather than implement this method within all Art History classes? These seem to be the questions that scholars have been addressing for years, challenging its proper integration into AH while highlighting its unique possibilities.

This discussion around DAH oddly enough reminded me of similar discussions concerning the field of African Art History. Since its inclusion into academic institutions as a subsection of the discipline, African Art History has faced many challenges when confronted with traditional (read Western) Art Historical methodology. Many scholars are continually having conversations about the limitations of current methods and their inability to understand the many knowledge systems, aesthetic principles, and socio-technological relationships all throughout the continent. Yet, we find that many institutions offer only one course on art coming from Africa, with no specification of time or place (but in the same department there is a class on Italian Renaissance Art from 1450-1500). Do you see the irony? I sure do.

Comparing DAH and African Art History might seem far-fetched. Heck you might even think its not worth the mental energy at all. But as a young scholar of African Art, I find this comparison to unearth new possibilities. With work left to be done to integrate African Art within Art History and DAH within evolving methodologies, I see the potential in applying the method to the subject. How can new technologies and digital methods pave new ways of thinking about African Art? How might these types of scholarly pursuits help expand the way we teach African Art? I don’t have answers to these questions, but I am eager to begin exploring.

I want to end with an article from a recent edition of African Arts. Under the journal’s theme of “African Art Histories’ Futures,” Oliver Marcel argued for the benefits of data-driven art studies. Through graphing software, Marcel proposed six ways to visualize representation of African artists at global art fairs and exhibitions. Each graph presented a new way to understand data, ultimately leading to their own discoveries and questions. He writes, “While these maps and graphs are indeed constructs, I think they should be viewed not as ultimate truths but rather as milestones in the paths to better understand contemporary African Art.” To me, this seems to be the beauty behind DAH– new avenues to better understand our visual cultures.

Marcel, Oliver. “Toward Data-Driven Art Studies: A Social Network Analysis of Contemporary African Art.” In African Arts 50, no. 4. 2017. 6-11.


  1. Emily Crockett says:

    I think your comparison here is very astute! I see too how the canonical art history has made both difficult to progress, but I do wonder if as we move forward in the discipline how things will change. Specifically, I’m thinking about the fact that people in the discipline seem ready to discuss the pedagogical methods in art history and perhaps (finally) changing them. Perhaps this is naive, but it feels as if more recent art historians are pushing against the way art history is traditionally taught and canonical works that are associated with it. Not to say one work is better than the other, but certainly more room can be made to be inclusive and to break down the (old white man) canon. Good old paywall, I can’t seem to find a copy of the article you brought in readily available, but I think it sounds really interesting particularly the part you quoted about the idea of milestones. I think that’s a good way to put it because while it may not be the ultimate end, a milestone is still something to celebrate and can still lead to poignant revelations.

  2. Michelle says:

    I really appreciated your inclusion of Marcel’s article. I think the article itself raises many of the points that are discussed regarding digital art history. He mentions that the data collected about interaction and inclusion in large art events, those art fairs and exhibitions for which catalogs are available, is incomplete because one can never know who talked to who, and if artists traveled themselves or only their art. Marcel thus notes that “ethnographers” would take issue with his approach and that this, “is why data-driven art studies can by no means replace ethnographic inquiry, but rather put forward new perspectives that can then be confronted to fieldwork evidence.” I see his argument as indicative of the broader discussion scholars are engaging in, in that discrete data sets still need to be managed or understood through human minds. In short I think Marcel encapsulates this well in saying that these graphs and networks depicting the movement of African art and artists are a vital step, but alone they are not enough as one has to manipulate and understand the data.

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