As of June 14, 2022, web analytics showed that over 1,079,413 people from around the world had used the Art & Life in Africa (ALA) website, which was released in the spring of 2014. This number of users does not include the thousands of people that also used the original ALA CD-ROM released in 1997, the number of people that attended seven ALA exhibitions held at the Stanley Museum of Art between 1985 and 2014, and the number of people that have read the two exhibition catalogs that accompanied them. ALA has had a significant impact on the way Iowans and many others have interacted with and learned about African art for nearly four decades. Indeed, ALA’s status is as canonical as the extraordinary objects from The Stanley Collection of African Art that were used to make it such a successful project.
Christopher D. Roy (1947-2019), the first full-time professor of African art history at The University of Iowa, and former curator at the (then called) University of Iowa Museum of Art (UIMA), conceived of ALA as an exhibition. It was held at the UIMA from April 5 to August 16, 1985 and included a published catalog of African objects collected by and promised to the UIMA by Claude (“Max”) Stanley (1904-1984). Roy curated ALA again and published an expanded edition of the catalog in 1992, following Elizabeth (“Betty”) Stanley’s (1906-1990) passing and major bequest of African art to the museum.
In 1993, Roy and Linda McIntyre received a $500,000 combined grant from the US Department of Education and NEH. It allowed them to transform ALA into a CD-ROM, released in 1997. Titled “Art and Life in Africa: Recontextualizing African Art in the Cycle of Life,” the project featured 600 objects, 750 field photographs, 11 chapters, 1,400 pages of text, 28 ethnic maps, 107 ethnographies, and 36 essays, most of which were written by scholars based in the US.
Roy’s recontextualization of African art in the cycle of life belongs to a wider history of scholarship in the late 20th century written by other American historians of African art, such as Roy Sieber, Robert Farris Thompson, and Rosalyn Adele Walker, all of whom were engaged with research on ritual by British cultural anthropologist Victor Turner (1920-1983). For the ALA CD-ROM and the website created from it, Roy pointed to the importance of work by folklorist Arnold Van Gennep (1873-1957), whose 1909 publication, Rites de Passage, he paired with the Congolese cosmogram (commonly referred to as dikenga) as a narrative and structural device for organizing ALA content.
Van Gennep’s focus on life-cycle rituals provides the ALA theme, for example, and the counterclockwise direction of the Congolese cosmogram determines the sequence in which we find supporting chapters on “Abundance,” “Education/Initiation,” “Key Moments in Life,” “Death,” and “Divination.” On the title page of the ALA CD-ROM, chapter titles were superimposed on a cosmogram watermark, with “Cultural Exchange” placed at the center. This visual feature was not retained on the ALA website and except for the placement of “Cultural Exchange, which appears last in a sequence of thumbnails, the original order of chapters remained intact.
Access to an archival version of the ALA website is provided through the University of Iowa Libraries. Due to the continually evolving nature of digital technology supporting ALA, certain features and links may no longer be accessible. Please refer to the Iowa Digital Library in order to use the current online collections database for the Stanley Museum of Art.