James J. Ross Archive of African Images 1590 - 1920
A history of the database of published images of African art

In the mid-1970's, when my wife Laura and I were privileged to visit New York collections of African sculpture, I was astounded by the variety, the power and the beauty of the masks and figures we saw. They ranged from the realistic to the abstract - from brutal to spiritual and contemplative and often had surprising combinations in a single object. I was also captivated by the stories behind the objects - what the artist was trying to accomplish and the role these creations played in village life.

I began to immerse myself in African art. I viewed objects in homes, offices, galleries, auction houses and museums in Europe and America and at the same time became an ardent purchaser and reader of myriad publications. It soon became apparent that I was forming two separate, mutually reinforcing collections - publications which discussed African sculpture and the glorious artworks themselves.

In the early 1990's, I became increasingly concerned about the future of scholarship in classical African sculpture. Despite the growing interest of the museum community in acquiring traditional art, students seemed increasingly to be studying only contemporary African art or African-American and diasporan art. At the same time, publications on traditional African art were increasingly expensive and the older ones were often very difficult to find. It occurred to me that I might be able to play a small role in ameliorating this situation by creating an archive of early literature which would assist students & scholars and at the same time be of interest to collectors like me.

My selection of 1920 as the cut-off date for images included in this archive is admittedly somewhat arbitrary. Yet 1920, or at least the 1920's, appears to me to mark a change. African art becomes increasingly popular and expensive as well as the subject of a growing number of publications. One unfortunate by-product of this development is an increase in the production and publication of fakes. I thought that a carefully prepared & annotated archive of 1920 & earlier publications might help interested parties in the never ending problem of determining authenticity. Toward that end, I believe that RAAI could profitably be expanded to include publications appearing between 1921 & 1950 or 1960. After 1960, the quantity of objects and published literature becomes so vast that limiting an archive to objects published by any subsequent date makes little sense. Perhaps the appearance of RAAI will encourage some brave soul to take up this challenge to extend & expand it.

Beginning in the late 1990's, I became more systematic in my efforts to acquire 1920 and earlier publications which contained at least one illustration of figurative African sculpture. I also began to hire researchers, scanners, photographers and others with the skills and experience necessary to assist me in my vaguely formed notion of creating an archive and publishing it in book form. In 2002, I approached Dr. Susan Vogel whose scholarship and keen eye combined with significant experience in the university, museum and publication worlds were well-known and respected. Susan soon agreed to oversee the project. My conversations with Susan Vogel about a proposed book quickly evolved into what we thought of as a 21st century combination of a book-plus-CD-ROM. The more interesting images would be illustrated and discussed in the book and all images with supporting data would be on a CD-ROM slipped into a pocket at the back of the book. We already had a utilitarian website on which we and the team were editing and annotating an ever growing body of digitized images. We soon came to the conclusion that the world was moving too quickly for a book even if accompanied by a CD-ROM and that the best format for the project would be a well-designed website. A substantial effort over the following years was directed to perfecting the website's flexible search functions under a skilled software designer. Our aim was to build a site which allowed easy additions, updates, corrections and alterations based to a substantial extent on comments sent directly to the site by the community of scholars, students, curators, dealers, collectors & others interested in traditional African sculpture.

So it is with great pleasure that Susan Vogel and I offer you RAAI, with thousands of objects carefully catalogued, presented and discussed. It is the product of the efforts of many people. Henrietta Cosentino served as the General Editor; her meticulous devotion is apparent on every page. Fredeick Lamp and Constantijn Petridis were Senior Advisors and commentators whose knowledge and experience greatly enhanced the site. Seth Kaufman and Maria Passarotti of Whirl-i-Gig developed and refined the software beginning in 2003. Web design is by Vic Lau of Blue Media. Susan Kart and Paulette Young, completed the principal library work and record inputting, and supervised a small army of translators, researchers, photographers and scanners including Lisa Webb & Florence Carrie. We are deeply grateful to all of these people and others unmentioned who have helped with this project. In some respects it will remain a work in progress for a long time as the existing team and future users who are knowledgeable about traditional African sculpture lend their expertise to rectify errors, to fill omissions and to enrich the Archive with new information. We anticipate a not too distant future when RAAI with the help of many will have achieved its goal of reproducing and discussing every illustration of figurative African sculpture which was published from the earliest days through 1920. Please enjoy the site, learn from it and help us to improve it.

James J. Ross
September 1, 2010

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