The University of Iowa
The University of Iowa News Services Home News Releases UI in the News Subscribe to UI News Contact Us


100 Old Public Library
Iowa City IA 52242
(319) 384-0072; fax (319) 384-0024

Release: Jan. 14, 2000

Exhibition to focus on abstract symbols found on African art objects

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- "Reading Meaning: Graphic Symbols in African Art," an exhibition focusing on the abstract and figurative symbols known as ideograms that are used on a wide range of African art objects, will open on Saturday, Jan. 15 and run through July 9 in the Stanley Gallery in the University of Iowa Museum of Art.

"Reading Meaning" explores the many ways in which knowledge is imparted and inscribed in the work of African artists, past and present. Using ideograms, African artists create works that can be 'read' by those literate in the ideograms' highly specialized meanings.

Prita Meier, a graduate student in the UI School of Art and Art History who organized the exhibition, will lead a free gallery tour of the exhibition at 12:30 p.m. Wednesday April 19 as a part of the museum's weekly Perspectives series.

Objects on display in "Reading Meaning" will include masks, figures, textiles and pots. These diverse objects served a wide variety of functions in their original contexts, from royal regalia and ceremonial objects to functional pottery and historical documents, but all are adorned with symbols. The exhibition examines both the objects' cultural meanings and the ways in which those meanings are inscribed.

The exhibition aims to challenge the prevalent Western view of Africa as traditionally non-literate, a view based on the fact that few sub-Saharan African writing systems were recognized by early Western observers. In the minds of these outside observers, ideograms and other graphic symbols lacked two basic prerequisites for written language: They are rarely phonetic and rarely fixed in their meanings. Instead, sophisticated sign systems often serve as mnemonic devices and are linked to large and complex systems of oral knowledge. Their highly abstract nature permit great flexibility in use and interpretation.

"Reading Meaning" will also illustrate the ways in which African art has been absorbed into Western systems of knowledge, producing interpretations of African symbols that we may now view as the result of scholars reading too much into African art.

"I hope visitors to the exhibition will appreciate yet another aspect of the many ways in which these art objects function within African society," says Meier. "Like a written script, ideograms can convey knowledge about history, society or religion. Visitors to the exhibition will learn more about the history, art, and culture of the artists who created these objects."

For information on the UI Museum of Art, visit on the World Wide Web. Information is available on other UI arts events at

The UI Museum of Art, located on North Riverside Drive in Iowa City, is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free. Public metered parking is available in UI parking lots across from the museum on Riverside Drive and just north of the museum.