Henry John Drewal

I am interested in all the arts (visual and performance) created by Africans and their descendants scattered in diasporas around the world. I believe that such arts are vital, powerful expressions of their identities and aspirations. Such arts have shaped (and continue to shape) culture and history. They have played crucial roles in matters of survival and empowerment. I have tried to show how and why art WORKS in the lives of individuals, communities, and nations. My writing focuses on four main areas:

  1. The arts histories/visual cultures of Yoruba-speaking peoples of Africa and the diaspora;
  2. Performance arts of Africa and the African Americas;
  3. Arts and ideas for Mami Wata and other water spirits in Africa and the Afro-Atlantic world;
  4. and most recently,

  5. The arts and architecture of the African diaspora (Siddis) in South Asia.

Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria (2009/2010)

with Enid Schildkrout

Dinastia y Divinidad: Arte Ife en Antiqua Nigeria. Santander, Spain: Fundacion Marcelino Botin and the Museum for African Art, NY. 521 pp.

[2010 editions: Kingdom of Ife: Sculptures from West Africa. (with Enid Schildkrout). London: The British Museum Press and the Museum for African Art, NY. 184 pp. and Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria (with Enid Schildkrout). New York: Museum for African Art, 184 pp.  currently being sold/distributed by University of Washington Press]

Dynasty and Divinity presents a major part of the extraordinary body of ancient Ife art in terra-cotta, stone, and metal, dating from the ninth to the fifteenth centuries. Artists at Ife, the ancient city-state of the Yoruba people of West Africa (located in present-day southwestern Nigeria), created sculpture that ranks among the most aesthetically striking and technically sophisticated in the world. The creative range of Ife art is seen here through a diversity of objects that includes handsome idealized portrait heads, exquisite miniatures, expressive caricatures of old age, lively animals, and sculptures showing the impressive regalia worn by Ife's kings and queens. Together, these illuminate one of the world's greatest art centers and demonstrate the technological sophistication of Ife artists, as well as the rich aesthetic language they developed in order to convey ideas about worldly and divine power.

Dynasty and Divinity accompanies an exhibition co-organized by the Museum for African Art, New York City, and the Fundacion Marcelino Botin, Santander, Spain, in collaboration with the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria. The exhibition will appear at the British Museum, London, as Kingdom of Ife: Sculptures of West Africa.


Sacred Waters: Arts for Mami Wata and other Water Divinities in Africa and the Diaspora (2008)

Indiana University Press. 704 pp. with DVD

This book addresses the diversity of belief and practice, audiences, gender, reception, hybridity, commodification, globalization, dispersal, and religious mutation of Mami Wata rituals. It includes more than 129 images and a supplemental DVD featuring nearly 500 images, several photographic essays, and film clips of performances/rituals, and music. Winner of the 2011 ACASA Arnold Rubin Outstanding Publication Award

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Mami Wata: Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and Its Diasporas (2008)

Henry John Drewal with contributions by Marilyn Houlberg, Bogumil Jewsiewicki, Amy L. Noell, John W. Nunley, and Jill Salmons
Los Angeles: Fowler Museum of UCLA and University of Washington Press, 227 pp.

This book traces the visual cultures and histories of Mami Wata and other African water divinities. Mami Wata, often portrayed with the head and torso of a woman and the tail of a fish, is at once beautiful, jealous, generous, seductive, and potentially deadly. A water spirit widely known across Africa and the African diaspora, her origins are said to lie "overseas," although she has been thoroughly incorporated into local beliefs and practics. She can bring good fortune in the form of money, and her power increased between the fifteenth and twentieth centuries, the era of growing international trade between Africa and the rest of the world. Her name, which may be translated as "Mother Water" or "Mistress Water," is pidgin English, a language developed to lubricate trade. Africans forcibly carried across the Atlantic as part of that "trade" brought with them their beliefs and practices honoring Mami Wata and other ancestral deities.

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Sensing Spirit, Healing with Art: Arturo Lindsay (2006)

Catalogue essay, Sumter Gallery, SC

Stitching History: Patchwork Quilts by Africans (Siddis) in India (2005)

Brochure accompanying exhibition in the Design Gallery

African Art at the Elvehjem (2004)

Elvehjem Museum of Art
University of Wisconsin, Madison
Bulletin/Biennial Report 2001- 2003

Revealing Forms (2002)

Gallery Guide
Elvehjem Museum of Art

Joyful Blues: A Celebration of West African Art and Culture (2000)

Curatorial Consultant
Design Gallery, UW-Madison, Spring.

Beads, Body, And Soul: Art And Light In The Yoruba Universe (1998)Amazon

(with John Mason)
Los Angeles : Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 288 pp. (Finalist, Herskovits Award of ASA, 1999 and ACASA Arnold Rubin Award, 2001)

The sights and sounds of the Yoruba cosmos are made manifest through the pervasive use of beads. This spectacular book represents a collaboration between art historian Henry John Drewal and Yoruba priest John Mason. From the forests of Africa a thousand years ago to the bustling cities of New York, Havana, and Salvador, today, Yoruba; religion has used beads to convey the artistic spirit and deep connection to the other world that its practitioners feel. This beautifully illustrated volume traces the history of the beads, their use, and Yoruba aesthetics and artistry.

Reflecting on African Reflections (1996)

Editor with introduction
Elvehjem Museum Of Art Bulletin, 1993-5

The Yoruba Artist: New Theoretical Perspectives On African Arts (1994)Amazon

(with Rowland Abiodun and John Pemberton III)
Editor with essay. Smithsonian Institution Press with the support of the Societé Suisse d'Études Africaines and the Rietberg Museum, Switzerland. 275 pp.

From Booklist
Yoruba artwork is at once powerfully expressive and technically adept. In a succession of scholarly essays, 18 experts delineate recent findings on the traditions and forms of this West African art. Identifying individual artists, tracing the development of stylistic trends, analyzing motifs, and linking Yoruba art with "praise poetry" (known as oriki) are some of the areas covered. Although academic, the text is nonetheless animated by the writers' great involvement with and enthusiasm for topics that yield ample material for rumination and research. The culminating essay by John Mason offers a particularly exciting examination of the development of Yoruba-American art and artists, from Cuba to New York City and South Carolina. Color illustrations will be included, along with black-and-white images of altars and shrines, carved trays, wooden heads, figurative posts and doors, and other artifacts.
Alice Joyce

From Book News, Inc.
With 27 color reproductions and 81 photographs--many published for the first time--accompanying essays by 18 noted Yoruba cultural historians, this volume documents the full spectrum of Yoruba culture, extending beyond the visual arts to examine the Yoruba use of such oral traditions as singing and chanting, as well as drumming, dance, and other artistic expressions, including an Ifa divination ritual that involves an interplay of arts.
Annotation copyright Book News, Inc. Portland, Or.

From Midwest Book Review
The cultural legacy of the Yoruba peoples is revealed in a strong collection which examines the artist's legacy and social influences and the Yoruba's influence on African arts as a whole. Striking black and white and color images pepper a collection which reveals the works of carvers, singers, painters, and a host of Yoruba artists from many different walks of life. A compelling collection.

Yoruba Art And Aesthetics (1991)

(with Rowland Abiodun and John Pemberton III)
Zurich : Rietberg Museum . 103 pp.

Yoruba: Nine Centuries Of African Art And Thought (1989)Amazon

(with John Pemberton III and Rowland Abiodun)
New York : Alfred Knopf and The Center for African Art. 256 pp.

From Publishers Weekly
Arising around A.D. 800, the ancient, walled Yoruba kingdoms were complex city states headed by sacred rulers, both male and female. Their modern descendants, Yoruba-speaking peoples of Nigeria and Benin, have preserved traditional art forms rooted in a view of the cosmos as alive and in constant flux. The stunning catalogue of a traveling exhibition, this volume serves as a window onto a world where "character is beauty," where rebirth occurs continuously and where spirits, gods and the life force are all-pervasive. Naturalistic terracotta heads, beaded crowns, ceremonial staffs topped with stylized birds, and objects in ivory, bronze, stone and wood display rare artistry. Many of the pieces shown are best understood in a ritual context, provided by Drewal, an art historian at Cleveland State University, and Pemberton, a professor of religion at Amherst.
Copyright 1990 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal
Robert Thompson has called the study of Yoruba art "the Shakespeare studies of African art" because so much research has been focused on this one African culture. This book, which accompanies a major exhibition, fully justifies all that scholarly attention. Yoruba-speaking peoples are the largest ethnic group in Africa, one which has been urbanized for over 1000 years. The visual arts of the Yoruba are thoroughly explored as aesthetic objects in their social, religious, political, and historical contexts. This book, which deserves the highest recommendation, may well be the finest example of African art scholarship yet published.
- Eugene C. Burt, Seattle
Copyright 1990 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Introspectives: Contemporary Art By Americans And Brazilians Of African Descent (1989)

(with David Driskell)
Los Angeles : The California Afro-American Museum . 104 pp.

African Art: A Brief Guide To The Collection (1989)

The Cleveland Museum of Art

Object And Intellect: Interpretations Of Meaning In African Art (1988)

Special issue of Art Journal
Summer 1988

Shapes Of The Mind: African Art From Long Island Collections (1988)

Hempstead , New York : Hofstra University . 31 pp.

Gelede: Art And Female Power Among The Yoruba (1983)Amazon

(with Margaret Thompson Drewal)
Bloomington : Indiana University Press. 352 pp. [2nd Edition, 1990.]

African Artistry: Technique And Aesthetics In Yoruba Sculpture (1980)

Atlanta : The High Museum of Art. 100 pp.

Dimensions In Black Art: African, Afro-Brazilian And Afro-American Art At CSU (1975)

Afro-American Cultural Center
Cleveland State University
Catalog which accompanies permanent collection