A Coptic Center in Medieval West Africa: Reframing Prester John and Early Global Trade

Speaker: Suzanne Preston Blier - Allen Whitehill Clowes Professor of Fine Arts and of African and African American Studies, Harvard University

This paper explores the importance of new technologies in the art historical study of Medieval West Africa and how related methodologies both help us understand the important art and architectural landscape here in this period, and how Africa and the eastern Coptic Christian world helped to reshape Africa in this era. A key focus of this discussion are various art historically rich sites in West Africa (Ife, Hausa, Bornu, Mafa), in Nigeria, Cameroon and Chad and how they may relate to the larger African European diaspora. At the same time this paper will also take up the importance of new technologies such as GIS, DNA, and geological analysis in addressing these and other issues are important to understanding the broader role that economy, trade, and religion have played in these and other contexts. This paper accordingly takes up the relative merit of new and older technologies in contexts where other data such as written resources are largely missing. While my focus is on medieval African art scholarship, the implications clearly are broader. I will argue that both quantitative and qualitative analysis can, in different contexts, offer unique insight into core art historical questions. Specifically, I will draw on vital differences in formal analysis, material analysis, GIS, DNA, environmental analysis.

Suzanne Preston Blier, Allen Whitehill Clowes Professor of Fine Arts and of African and African American Studies, Harvard University. Two of her articles appeared in Art Bulletin’s Centennial Anthology of top 33 art history articles from the last century. Her publications include, most recently, Picasso’s Demoiselles: The Untold Story of the Origins of a Modern Masterpiece (2019 Duke University Press). and Asen: Mémoires forgés à fer dans l’Art Vodun du Dahomey (2019 Geneva: Ides et Calendes). Other books include Art and Risk in Ancient Yoruba (2015, 2016 Prose Prize in Art History and Criticism, African Vodun: Art, Psychology and Power (1995 Charles Rufus Morey Prize) and The Anatomy of Architecture: Ontology and Metaphor in Batammaliba Architectural Expression (1987, Arnold Rubin Prize), The Image of the Black in African and Asian Art (2017) with D. Bindman and H.L. Gates, Jr and the forthcoming 1325: How African Made the World Modern (Duke University Press 2021). Blier is past president of the College Art Association and is a member of the National Committee for the History of Art. She is also Chair of the International Advisory Committee, for WorldMap, an electronic interactive mapping datatabase.

The Frank Davis Memorial Lecture Series:

The Frank Davis Memorial Lecture Series is one of two annual distinguished lecture series at The Courtauld. This series was established in 1989, as a result of a bequest from the F.M. Kirby Foundation, in honour of Frank Davis, who was a critic for Country Life magazine. The bequest has allowed The Courtauld to invite internationally renowned scholars to come to the institute to speak about their work in a public forum.

Organised by Dr Sussan Babaie (The Courtauld) and Dr Scott Nethersole (The Courtauld).

6:30pm, 29 Oct 2019

The Courtauld Institute of Art, Vernon Square, Penton Rise, King’s Cross, London