Sensory studies arises at the conjuncture (and within) the fields of anthropology • sociology • history • archeology • geography • communications • religion • philosophy • literature • art history • museology • film • mixed media • performance • phenomenology • disability • aesthetics • architecture • urbanism • design

Sensory Studies can also be divided along sensory lines into, for example, visual culture, auditory culture (or sound studies), smell culture, taste culture and the culture of touch, not to mention the sixth sense (however it might be defined)

African Art and the Senses

by Henry John Drewal


The role of the senses in understandings of African/African Diaspora art, and art in general, is a topic that has intrigued me for some time. I am preparing a book on the subject, with the support of a Guggenheim Fellowship.1  My earliest encounter with this topic, though I did not know it at the time, dates to my very first attempt at African art “research” — my apprenticeship to the Yoruba artist Sanusi of the Adugbologe Workshop in Abeokuta, Nigeria in 1965, while I was a Peace Corps secondary school teacher. I did a second, mask-making apprenticeship with Ogundipe of Ilaro in 1978 when I made a Gelede mask for the impending festival. I believe that work still dances in Gelede performances (Figure 1) (Okediji 2003:182). What I learned from those apprenticeships was that “the actions of artists teach us as much about style and aesthetics as their words. I began to gain 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” (Drewal 1980:7). In other words, my own bodily, multi-sensorial experience was crucial to a more profound understanding 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 experience for me. Slowly my body learned to carve as my adze-strokes became more precise and effective and the image in my mind took shape through the actions of my body. Yorubas understand this kind of experience and explain it with a sensory metaphor: “the outsider or uninitiated usually sees through the nose” (imu ni alejo fi i riran) (Abiodun 1990:75). This saying has two different yet complementary connotations: that an outsider understands little because he/she confuses sensing organs; and, at the same time, that understanding requires multiple senses (Abiodun 2005, Ola 2005).


A similar orientation, a fascination with arts (both visual and performance) and their impact on audiences, led me to Efe/Gelede masquerades as the subject of my PhD field research in 1970-71. I chose Efe/Gelede because it epitomizes for Yoruba people a deeply moving, multi-sensorial, multi-media spectacle of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touches, and movements captured in the praise “the eyes that have seen Gelede, have seen the ultimate spectacle” (oju to ba ri Gelede, ti de opin iran).

These were examples of what I might call “body-mind work” and what  Paul Stoller (1997) evocatively calls “sensuous scholarship.” Here one no longer aspires to achieve an impossible “distanced objectivity” of a so-called participant-observer (which historically emphasizes observation). Rather one works as a sensorially-engaged participant, opening many paths to knowledge and understanding.

This is the practice I advocate. But then as academics and wordsmiths we always come back to either spoken or written words to convey what we experience deeply. In order to come closer to such sensory experiences, affective, evocative words are needed, a style of expression that approaches poetry. I hope to work toward this goal more and more in my writing, teaching, and speaking/performing.

This exposition of my Guggenheim proposal outlines my theoretical perspective, proposes a specific methodology, and calls for assistance from colleagues with similar experiences and ideas that I hope to incorporate in the book I am preparing. My objective is to demonstrate how African artists and audiences use the senses (sight, taste, hearing, speaking, touch, motion, and extra-sensory perception) to create and respond to the affective and aesthetic qualities of art. As you see, I intend to consider the standard five senses plus two others I believe are distinct and equally important – motion and “extra”-sensory perception. Motion has to do with our relation to gravitational forces and our sense of balance. As it turns out, a sense of balance (agbagbadodo), when a child first learns to rise up on two feet and not fall over, is for Anlo-Ewe speaking people “an essential part of what it means to be human” (Geurts (2002:49-50).2  I would enlarge the notion of balance/spatial orientation to encompass motion, with its sensing organ, the labyrinth of the inner ear.

The seventh sense, what some often call “the sixth sense,” has to do with “extra”-sensory perception (ESP) or intuition. I would suggest that when we try to understand the concept of trance or altered states of consciousness – a phenomenon that is certainly widespread in the artistic and religious traditions we study in Africa and the Diaspora (and probably a universal human experience) — we are dealing with issues of ESP, the supplement. This seventh sense is in a way related to synesthesia  – the simultaneous body-mind interplay of multiple senses that has a profound effect on how we experience things in this world, and what we imagine might be beyond – wonderfully captured in the words of A. M. Opoku of the Ghana Dance Ensemble that inspired Frederick Lamp’s title “see the music, hear the dance” (Lamp 2004:15).

There is now a rapidly growing interest in aspects of this multi-sensorial approach. In anthropology, the seminal work has been done by Paul Stoller (1984; 1989; 1997), and by Michael Taussig (1993; 2004) and Kathryn Geurts (2002). In the field of African art history/visual culture, Joanne Eicher (Roach and Eicher 1973; 1995), Robert Farris Thompson (1974), Herbert Cole (1970; 1974), and Simon Ottenberg (1975) were among the first to open more than our eyes to the importance of the senses. Now others are beginning to explore this topic (Strother 1998, 2000; Lamp 2004; Blier 2004; Cooksey 2004) and in September 2005, the University of Minnesota held a symposium called “The Senses and Sentiments of Dress,” honoring the work of Joanne Eicher, subsequently published as Dress Sense: Emotional and Sensory Experiences of the Body and Clothes (Johnson and Foster 2007). Diane Ackerman’s (1990) poetic evocation of the “natural history of the senses” has inspired wide audiences beyond the academy. Much of this work reflects a renewed interest in the body as an important site of investigations, for the senses are about bodily experience and knowledge. It is no mystery then that the often exquisitely poetic writing of Robert Farris Thompson comes from his roots as an ethnomusicologist and mambo freak, that Margaret Thompson Drewal (1992) and Frederick Lamp understand performance so well because they weredancers, and Daniel Reed (2003) music, because he had to learn from his Dan master singing instructor how to “heat up” a Dan Ge masquerade performance with a loud voice, high register, and tight timber (Reed 2003:126). 

I believe we need to re-think our ways of working. Language-based approaches, such as semiotics, structuralism and post-structuralism, are not vision-based.  Such linguistic or logocentric approaches to the arts have tended to distort or blur understandings of art on its own terms (Drewal 1990:35).  When we consider art, it becomes form webbed by words. Granted, we cannot avoid using words – our discipline is basically “words about images.” But we need to go beyond this. As W. J. T. Mitchell has observed “… ‘visual experience’ or ‘visual literacy’ might not be fully explicable in the model of textuality” (Mitchell 1994:16). We need to explore how art communicates and evokes by means of its own unique sensorial modes (Drewal 2002:200), and to develop a language and method of the senses, an approach I term sensiotics that I have been feeling, thinking, and working on (and that has been working on me) since my first apprenticeship.

Vision–based approaches would be an important first step in a more inclusive project on the bodily, multi-sensorial basis of understanding.  I would contend that while language, for example, is one of the ways we re-present the world, before language we began by perceiving, reasoning, theorizing, and understanding through all our senses.  Sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste, and motion continually participate, though we may often be unconscious of them, in the ways we literally make sense of the world, and art. Seeing (hearing, tasting, etc.) is thinking. Sensing is theorizing.  In the beginning, there was no word, only sensations. 

In stressing the importance of the senses in the constitution of understanding, I am adapting the arguments of Mark Johnson in The Body in the Mind (1987:xiii, xv).3  He wrote, "any adequate account of meaning and rationality must give place to embodied and imaginative structures of understanding by which we grasp the world…. embodied human understanding …. is here regarded as populated with just those kinds of imaginative structures that emerge from our experience as bodily organisms functioning in interaction with an environment."

Having briefly stated this theoretical position, I want to illustrate how certain senses contribute to "understandings" of art in Africa, using examples informed by work among Yoruba-speaking peoples of West Africa (and their descendants in the Americas). Hearing, a sense that has great importance, especially on a continent where oral traditions are essential to the production and reproduction of social, cultural and artistic practices, is an extremely important sensorial mode of understanding in Yoruba society. The concept of "educability" is conveyed in the term iluti, the ability to hear, and remember (Abiodun 1983).  Sounds, surely a very important mode of appreciation, are often ignored or devalued in discussions of "visual arts." Consider the writing on Ifa divination trays, which are seen as ona, the Yoruba term for “art” or “evocative form” (figure 2).  While we marvel at the complex imagery on the tray’s border and wax eloquent about such sights, we forget that the hollow area carved into the underside of the tray creates a sound chamber.  The tray is a wooden drum. When an Ifa priest strikes its surface with the pointed end of a divination tapper, the sound reverberates in order to "communicate between this world and the next" as the diviner Kolawole Oshitola (1982) explained to me.  Sacred sounds, not just images, create a transcendent, evocative experience of art. 


A second example comes from what one might consider a "visual" art, kolo or body tattoo scarifications (figure 3) (Drewal 1988).  While the sense of sight is certainly used to perceive them initially, it is the sense of touch (whether actual or virtual) that provokes a deeper sensual pleasure and appreciation.  As one Yoruba man confided to me, "when we see a young woman with kolo, and try to touch the kolo with our hands, the weather changes to another thing [we become sexually aroused]!" 


A third example involves the sense of smell together with other senses. A warrior masquerader’s

powerful aura (figure 4), its performative power or ase, resides not only in its striking colors and assemblage of power packets attached to its costume, but other multi-sensorial elements as well — the powerful chorus of praise songs that energize it; the kinetic energy of its dance amplified by the aggressive and threatening demeanor of its attendants; the pain of whips striking flesh; the rushing, boisterous crowd; the gritty taste of dust kicked up in the chaos; the pulsing beat of drums; the heavy thud of the masker’s combat boots; and especially the pervasive, overpowering stench that emanates from the animal sacrificial offerings on its blood-soaked tunic! The crowd, sensing the presence of danger, death and violence in that place and moment, responds accordingly.

I am beginning to survey work on the senses that is often embedded in the growing body (no pun intended) of detailed studies of specific artistic traditions. For my spring 2005 seminar on “Masking and the Senses in Africa and the African Diaspora” I asked students to try and tease out the sensory data in their investigations of research on different masquerades. Here are just two examples. Meghan Doherty chose Bwa leaf masks. She found that an understanding of these leaf masquerades requires an understanding of Bwa origin stories of the forest spirit Do, ecology, human symbolizations of the environment, and a Bwa sensory order or sensorium(See Geurts 2002:5, 37-8). For example, the plants that are used to cleanse, purify and renew human bodies, are the same ones used by the leaf masquerades to purify communities. The sound of the “father of Do” maskers, representing the pre-human, primordial time of the forest, is only the rustling of leaves and the shrill calls of bamboo whistles. In two other types of Do masks, morphology evokes a specific sound. The dramatic hollow cone projecting from the front of the headdress is understood as a beehive. Bees, the warriors of Do and mediators between humans and gods, are considered “resonant” insects (Coquet 1996:28) whose humming signals communication with the divine. To see and experience these leaf masks is to feel the act of purification and to hear them hum (cf. Roy 1987, 2003; Hanna-Vergara 1996; Coquet 1996; 2000).

Another student, Michelle Craig, found that two initiation ceremonies in the bori possession cult in Niger are likened to cooking, tasting, and ingesting. Girka(“cooking” or “preparing food”) involves the ritual consumption of small pieces of the sensory organs of the sacrificial animals – the ears, eyes, nose, tongue, and foot – meant to intensify and enhance the sensory receptivity of initiates when bori spirits “ride” their adepts (Masquelier 2001: 118). Another rite is called shan ice which means “to drink from the tree,” a reference to an infusion of tree bark in a drink that is meant to fortify the devotees (Masquelier 2001: 97). Milk is another crucial, multi-sensorial ritual substance that is felt as well as drunk. It is sprayed on persons to heal and protect them and poured on the ground to soak up and cool the heat of divine thunderstones and danger.

While these few examples focus on African art traditions passed down and transformed by body-minds over generations, I believe a sensiotics approach can also inform our understandings of contemporary African arts as well. These twentieth and twenty-first century forms are shaping and responding to wider worlds – a spinning globe of complex, competing images, sensations, and ideas that constantly bombard us. Out of this, artists create, and audiences respond using their senses and sensibilities.

I recently watched Lightning in a Bottle: The History of the Blues, a documentary of an historic performance at Radio City Music Hall. In a taped interview, the director Antoine Fuqua (2004) reminded us that the blues started in Africa and came to the (Mississippi) Delta. For the film, he wanted to turn the Hall into a “juke joint” – “…a moody, contrasty, dark place so you could feel like you were in a juke joint down south somewhere … so you could actually feel it, smell it, see it …. see the sweat off these guys… that’s the blues, man, its moody …. it was just instinct, it  wasn’t really something I had to think much about…” He is talking about how his senses profoundly shaped him and his vision for this film. If we want to understand the creativity of artists, and the responses of audiences, then we must understand how the senses shape and guide us from pre-cradle to grave. 

I welcome leads, suggestions, and advice as I continue with this work. You can reach me via email at:  Let our body-minds soar as we create words to convey the sensuous experiences called art.

An earlier version of this essay appeared in African Arts (Summer 2005), and is reprinted here with the permission of the publisher


[1]  This essay is an initial expansion of my original Guggenheim Fellowship proposal, written in October 2003. I want to thank my teachers, friends, colleagues, and students for providing insights into the role of the senses in understandings of art. The writings of some colleagues (this list is very preliminary) are cited in the references, but beyond this, many contributed ideas and leads: Rowland Abiodun, Sunny and Meeta Bindaas, Herbert Cole, Kenneth George, Joanne Eicher, Sarah K. Khan, John Mason, Mary E. Regan, Helen H. Tanner, Robert Farris Thompson, and students in my spring 2005 seminar on “Masking and the Senses in Africa and the African Diaspora,” Meghan Doherty, Michelle Craig, Abayomi Ola, and Lindsey Wadleigh.

[2]  This Ewe concept may be cognate to the Yoruba aesthetic concept of balance/symmetry in sculpture (didogba).

[3]  See also Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (1980).


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——. 2003. “Leaf Masks Among the Bobo and the Bwa,” in Material Differences: Art and Identity in Africa, Frank Herreman, ed. NY: Museum for African Art, 122-127.

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——. 1989. The Taste of Ethnographic Things: The Senses in Anthropology. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

——. 1997. Sensual Scholarship. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

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——. 2000. "Smells and Bells: The Role of Skepticism in Pende
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Bio — Henry John Drewal is the Evjue-Bascom Professor of African and African Diaspora arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His  exhibition on the arts for Mami Wata and other African and African Atlantic water spirits opened at the Fowler Museum of Cultural History-UCLA in fall 2007.