“In the beginning, there was no word, only sensations,” says Henry John Drewal.
“The senses are crucial to understandings of the arts, as well as the formations of persons and cultures, and histories,” explains Drewal, Evjue-Bascom Professor of Art History and Afro-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
Drewal began to discover the central role of the senses in the arts in the 1960s. While in Nigeria teaching French and English and organizing arts camps as a Peace Corps volunteer, he apprenticed himself to a Yoruba sculptor, an experience that proved to be transformative.
He followed up in 1978 with mask-making apprenticeship with another Yoruba sculptor in Nigeria, and the Gelede mask he created still dances in annual festivals.
Through these experiences, he says, “I gained insights into Yoruba artistic concepts, not only in discussing them with artists and observing them as they emerged from the creative process, but also in attempting to achieve them in my own carving under the tutelage of Yoruba artists.”
He adds, “In other words, my own bodily, multi-sensorial experience was crucial to a more profound understanding (oye) of Yoruba art, and the culture and history that shape it. This process of watching, listening, carving, making mistakes, being corrected by example, and trying again, was a transformative sensorial experience for me.”
Drewal has received a 2016-17 senior Fulbright Scholar award to continue exploring African art through what he calls Sensiotics – “the study of the multi-sensorial dimensions of the arts, both in the making and the reception of the arts by body-minds.”
For this project, The Senses in Understandings of Art, Culture, and History: Moroccan Art in Iron, he explains, “I plan to spend about four to six months working in Morocco with metal artists, especially blacksmiths who work with forged iron.”
Drewal’s project ties in with his role as part of the curatorial team for an upcoming international traveling exhibition, Striking Iron: The Art of African Blacksmiths. The team is led by MacArthur Fellow and acclaimed Santa Fe-based artist and master blacksmith Tom Joyce.
Scheduled to open in the spring of 2018, Striking Iron will present 250 sub-Saharan artworks from American and European public and private collections, spanning in time from early archaeological evidence to the present day.
Striking Iron seeks to advance the study of iron arts through the exhibition, major publication, web-based offerings, and public programs. The Fowler Museum at UCLA has received support from the National Endowment for the Humanities for this exhibition, which will travel to three or more national and international venues.
In Morocco, Drewal says, “I intend to apprentice myself to several artists to learn their techniques, have extensive conversations with them, and document their creative process – with photos and films – in preparation for writing about this work for Striking Iron.”
He describes Morocco as “an important cultural crossroads that has created rich and diverse art in metal, inspired by Islamic, Arab, Berber, Jewish, and sub-Saharan African sources.”
He further explains, “Morocco is connected culturally and historically to Sub-Saharan Africa, yet has its own distinctive artistic traditions, some of them associated with Moroccans, known as the Gnawa, who came from Mali, Niger, and other countries in West Africa. Some of them are blacksmith-artists and their work will be shown in the Striking Iron exhibition.”
Drewal, a New York native, received his BA from Hamilton College, where he majored in French and minored in Fine Arts.
His experience while serving with the Peace Corps led him to pursue interdisciplinary studies in African art history and culture at Columbia University, where he earned two master’s degrees and a PhD.
He has taught at Cleveland State University, University of California-Santa Barbara, and SUNY-Purchase. He has served as Curator of African Art at The Cleveland Museum of Art and the Neuberger Museum in Purchase, NY.
Since 1991, Drewal has been the Evjue-Bascom Professor of Art History and Afro-American Studies and Adjunct Curator of African Art at the Chazen Museum of Art, UW–Madison.
He has published several books, edited volumes, exhibition catalogues, and many articles on African/African Diaspora arts and curated or co-curated several major exhibitions.
Among his numerous awards are several National Endowment for the Humanities grants, two previous Fulbright Research Awards (Brazil and Benin), two American Institute of Indian Studies Senior Fellowships for research in India, a Metropolitan Museum of Art Fellowship, and a Guggenheim Fellowship.
– by Kerry G. Hill