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246 × 189 × 24 mm
288 pages
97 illustrations, 52 in colour
11 Nov 2019

The Artfulness of Death in Africa John Mack

If weddings are the most lavish events in most parts of the world, in Sub-Saharan Africa, by contrast, it is funerals. Funeral celebrations can be flamboyant occasions, particularly those honouring prominent people. Artworks of many kinds are created to commemorate the dead, from mortuary sculptures and extravagant coffins, to elaborate headstones, memorials, monuments and cenotaphs.

This is a unique survey of the ‘artful’ nature of funerals in Africa. Drawing on a wide range of historical, anthropological, archeological, art historical and literary sources, John Mack charts the full range of African funereal art, drawing on examples from across the continent, and from ancient times to today.

Featuring abundant illustrations, some of which have never been published before, this is essential reading for those interested in African art, culture, society and history.

‘Transformation, memorialization, and commemoration are the hallmarks of African art studies, and this selective survey of art made to commemorate death touches on these diverse, interrelated themes. Death is acted on by the living in all cultures, but African peoples leave exceptionally visible marks referencing the transition into the realm of ancestors. In sub-Saharan Africa, death is a major catalyst for visual art, and this art both mourns loss and celebrates life . . . Mack reminds the reader that though in most parts of the world artworks that reference death honor the elite, in Africa death receives respect regardless of the social standing of the deceased. The structure of practices in Africa has changed over time, but outward observance of death has endured, and the root and meaning of what is essentially funerary presentations remain intact. In addition to some artworks, the volume features a vast number of field photographs that skillfully support the text. Extensive and valuable endnotes; comprehensive bibliography. Recommended.’ — Choice

‘[Mack'] latest work looks closely at the relationship between art and death in sub-Saharan Africa. Drawing on an extensive list of archaeological, historical, anthropological and literary sources, Mack traces the patterns and divergences of sociospiritual life across sub-Saharan communities in seven richly detailed chapters . . . It’s a beautifully illustrated and robustly researched survey . . . From the vast burial mounds of Emi Lulu to Nigerian portrait masks and from Edo installation rites to the fantastical Ga coffins of southern Ghana, the breadth of coverage in what’s a deeply informative and fascinating read is astonishing . . . A work of clarity and rigour, The Artfulness of Death in Africa is essential reading for anyone interested in the arts of the continent.’ — Morning Star

‘This book, by a first-rate scholar, brings research from art history, anthropology, history, and archaeology together in an examination of the wide-ranging artistic expressions that punctuate death and its aftermath for the living among many Africa cultures. Besides the intrinsic value of exposure to artistic acumen in a vast array of forms, the social and conceptual implications of those forms across Africa offer testimony to the complex and nourishing ways people cope with the realities of life’s corporeal end. With decades of work at the British Museum and the University of East Anglia, much research experience, and a bent of mind that brings synthesis and insight together without sacrificing rich detail, John Mack is the right kind of person to write such a book.’ — Journal of Folklore Research

‘A much-needed publication relevant to the growing popular interest in death, dying, mourning and thereafter.’ — John Picton, Emeritus Professor, SOAS, University of London

‘The book is a genuine contribution to the study of the material culture and art of Africa. It is the first work (that I am aware of) that in systematic form develops a well-developed survey of the ways in which attitudes to death are made material in different instances across Africa. It brings to the fore some genuinely important questions and sets out, through a fantastic range of examples and erudite knowledge, an area of investigation often reduced or skimmed over in studies of ‘ritual’ or ‘religion’.’ — Will Rea, Senior Lecturer, School of Fine Arts, Leeds

‘Quite simply, a treat to read. Beautifully crafted and deeply thoughtful – this volume navigates complex terrain with innovation and flair.’ — Gus Casely-Hayford, Director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art

‘This fascinating book provides a detailed insight into African art as it relates to death, but it is much more than this, through ranging across disciplines such as anthropology, history, and art history, the complexities of death in Africa and people’s ways of dealing with it both materially and conceptually are paradoxically, brought to life.’ — Timothy Insoll, Al-Qasimi Professor of African and Islamic Archaeology, University of Exeter

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John Mack is Professor of World Art Studies in the Sainsbury Research Unit at the University of East Anglia and a specialist in African arts and cultures. His many books include The Museum of the Mind: Art and Memory in World Cultures (2003), The Art of Small Things (2007) and The Sea: A Cultural History (Reaktion, 2011).


1 Understanding Death
2 The Death of Royalty
3 The Artfulness of Funerals
4 Funerary Masquerade
5 Grave Sites
6 Relics, Shrines and Memorials
7 Modern Practices

Photo Acknowledgements