Henry John Drewal is the Evjue-Bascom Professor of Art History and Afro-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He has published numerous books, edited volumes, exhibition catalogues, and many articles on African/African Diaspora arts. He is currently developing his approach for understanding material culture/arts, cultures, and histories called Sensiotics which considers the crucial role of the senses in shaping body-minds.

Tell us about your academic background and how you became interested in your research area?
I was an undergraduate at Hamilton College majoring in languages—French and Spanish, and some Russian—with a minor in studio art because I’ve always had an interest in making: my father was a New York City fireman and fine craftsman and I was his apprentice for many years. After I graduated, I joined the Peace Corps and was assigned to teach French and English in a secondary school in Nigeria. This was in 1964, not long after they gained independence.

From my students, I learned Yorùbá (the language in this part of southwestern Nigeria) and started to get to know my community. I eventually became friends with a Yorùbá wood sculptor who agreed to let me apprentice under him, which I did for about eight months. This changed my life. It was a transformative experience that made me realize the importance of multi-sensorial bodily knowledge that eventually led to my approach termed Sensiotics. I realized then that I wasn’t going to become a language teacher, I was going to learn what I could about African arts and cultures and share that knowledge.

After I received my PhD in 1973, I started teaching. My first job was in an art department that combined art history with studio art at Cleveland State University. Eventually, I became department chair and an adjunct curator of African art at the Cleveland Museum of Art, where I curated two or three major exhibitions and developed their collection. In 1990, I was recruited by the University of Wisconsin-Madison for a job I couldn’t refuse— an endowed chair in art history. I was also able to continue my curatorial work at the University’s art museum, which is now the Chazen Museum of Art.

I have been teaching African and African diaspora arts since I started in 1973. My specialty in Yorùbá arts and culture has allowed me to research beyond the shores of Africa. Many Yorùbá people, because of a century of warfare and conflict in the nineteenth century, were captured in the battles that they lost. They were then enslaved, and transported to the Americas in quite large numbers, mostly to Cuba and Brazil. I have done a lot of work on the influence of Yorùbá descendants in the arts in those two countries. I’ve also studied other African descendants in Mexico and in Panama, but mostly I’ve concentrated on Cuba and Brazil. I have also done research and writing on the arts of a little-known African diaspora in South Asia, specifically in Karnataka-India, where they are known as Siddis.

What attracted you to our fellowship?
I was a lead faculty member in the development of a curatorial studies program in my department at Wisconsin when we invited Professor Ivan Gaskell to a symposium about it. His advice was greatly welcomed. As a result, he learned about my work, and I learned about his. About a year or two later, Ivan, along with the Chipstone Foundation’s Jonathan Prown and Sarah Carter, organized a Chipstone workshop at Bard Graduate Center. There were, I think, twenty-five or thirty of us participating— Ivan had invited me to present on art and the senses because that’s what I’m working on these days.

I had such a wonderful time at the workshop, meeting other presenters and talking with Ivan and other BGC faculty members that I thought I would love to come back in some way. Not long afterwards, an announcement of the fellowship crossed my desk, so I applied for it.

One result that will come out of this fellowship is the research that I am doing for an upcoming collection-based exhibition, and its accompanying book, called Striking Iron: the Art of African Blacksmiths. I am one of four curators involved, and I am looking at iron work related to pieces that will be displayed. I am working at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Newark Museum.

The fellowship has also given me the opportunity to write up the material that I have recently collected in Morocco on their blacksmiths—the results of a Senior Research Fulbright I received from January until the end of April this spring. For the exhibition book, I’m taking an approach that I call Sensiotics, which is a theory and method that I’m developing that looks at the importance of remembering all of the multi–sensorial elements that go into our life experiences and our interaction with objects — not only through the sense of sight but also through sound, touch, smell, taste… whatever. Ultimately these ideas will be incorporated into the next book, which will focus specifically on understanding our sense-abilities and how these shape us as individuals and social beings over time.

What are your plans following the fellowship?
In the fall, I am teaching a curatorial studies course. My students will be working on various aspects of an exhibition that will open in January 2018 in the new Design Gallery at UW-Madison— in the School of Human Ecology where there is a program in design studies that is very much focused on material culture matters. I am organizing an exhibition called Whirling Return of the Ancestors, which focusses on Egúngún regalia that is worn in masquerades honoring the ancestral spirits of the Yorùbá people. There are two such ensembles in the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection. A former student, who teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design, and I commissioned a new one from West Africa that will also be displayed. I have other objects that we’re considering, as well. I’m presently preparing the seminar syllabus that will outline the various tasks my students will work on for the project. All of this has to be in place by November so that the Design Gallery staff can install the exhibition by its January opening.

What advice do you give your students as they embark on their careers?
One of the first pieces of advice that I give to all of my students is to “follow your passion”—to follow the things that excite them the most; something that they are passionately connected to. If they choose topics or work situations that they’re not that interested in, they’ are not going to carry it very far. So I always say, “to the greatest extent that you can possibly do it, follow your passion.” Along with that, comes the advice that they be prepared to be flexible and adaptable to changing situations no matter where they work. Whether they are employed independently or in large institutions, they have to be in touch with the circumstances and conditions of the situation they are operating in.

Finally, I think museums and curatorial work can be wonderful teaching tools not just for those in higher education but for the general public. I am very concerned about the level of education in this country or the lack of commitment to it by certain powers. That is something that we must fight against as strongly as possible. Democracy cannot survive with an ignorant citizenry.