The newly established Department of African Art at the Yale University Art Gallery is in the process of assembling the world's largest photographic digital database of African art. This is the Yale University Art Gallery-van Rijn Archive of African Art (YVRA), which has been under development by Guy van Rijn, now in Brussels, for several decades. The Archive was purchased for Yale in 2001 and the continuation of the project funded by James J. Ross. The ultimate goal is to make the Archive publicly accessible online through the centralized Yale digital network. At present, as a work in progress, it is available by appointment only at the YUAG Department of African Art and by application to the staff of the YVRA in Brussels for Internet access.
The Yale University Art Gallery-van Rijn Photographic Archive is the most comprehensive archive of its kind in the field, comprising images of art from Africa in collections worldwide and in situ. It now includes primarily sculpture, from antiquity to the mid-twentieth-century and it will continue to grow as the archivist receives new images. As such it is potentially infinite There are now approximately 160,000 images of African art drawn from private and museum collections, dealers, general archives, and the existing body of literature including books, articles, notices, and auction catalogues. The database may be searched by country, cultural group, object type, and many other fields enabling the user to do a specific search. The YVRA may be used for research purposes only. In making these images and their related documentation available to researchers, YUAG’s Department of African Art provides an unparalleled resource for the study of African arts.
This Archive of African art focuses on art made in Africa south of the Sahara, including works in collections and in situ to the present, that is within the traditions dating to the mid-twentieth century and earlier -- what is commonly called "traditional African art." It also includes more transitional work as well as later work in older traditions, to the present day, meant for regional African audiences. It does not include the vast new world of contemporary art by artists from Africa (either in Africa or abroad) who address an international audience, and consider themselves part of the global art market. Nevertheless, the boundaries drawn by the Yale-van Rijn archive are not fixed or rigid. The Archive also includes people in the field of African art (collectors, dealers, scholars, African artists), maps of Africa indicating cultural and linguistic areas drawn from the available literature, and bibliographies for cultural groups and object types.
One of the most spectacular aspects of the Archive is the advanced search by which one may enter details of the features of a particular object, selected from an elaborate menu, to find an object based upon the vaguest memory. Complex analyses have been made of origin, form, style, and other categories that enable formal research in a way that has never before been possible. This has been completed by Frederic Cloth for the Kota and Mahongwe reliquary figures of Gabon. A new study is now underway on the helmet masks of the women's Sande or Bondo society in Sierra Leone and northwestern Liberia among the Mende, Vai, Gola, Southern Bullom, and other cultural groups in the area. These continuing advanced projects will be of enormous importance to new research in African art.
Contents of the YVRA include:

  • Works of art produced in Africa -- whether object photos or field photos containing art objects, as well as images of people involved in African art, and exhibitions of African art (with exceptions listed below), of all periods, media, and styles, to the present day. "Art" may be loosely defined, characterized by excellence, creativity, and distinction of style, form, embellishment, detailing, and execution.
  • Non-collectible art such as body arts (e.g. elaborate scarifications, elaborate coiffure), ephemeral arts (earthworks, works in fugitive materials), time-based arts, wall painting, and graphic systems.
  • People in the field of African art (collectors, dealers, scholars, African artists)
  • Maps of Africa indicating cultural and linguistic areas drawn from the available literature
  • Bibliographies for cultural groups and object types

Not included in the YVRA:

  • Contemporary art by African artists identifying with the global art market.
  • Ancient Egyptian
  • European-African
  • African Diaspora outside the continent
  • Non-African manufacture used in Africa
  • Objects that have little individual distinction of which there may be hundreds of thousands in existence (e.g., strings of beads, simple spears, unadorned bracelets, containers without decoration, etc.)
  • General material culture
  • Photos of generic architecture
  • Known works of deception

The archivist solicits images from collectors of photographs and/or objects who would like to include their collections in the Archive. It should be noted that Yale makes no claims to authenticity of the objects illustrated (by any definition of the term "authentic," and the inclusion or exclusion of an image is at the sole discretion of Yale.
The Archive will also include opinions (including those concerning authenticity) in the Archive database submitted by third parties, at Yale's discretion. We expect that this will provide a forum that will be useful to all researchers. In this working phase, ask visiting researchers who are using the Archive to exchange their own images and expertise from their fields of study in order to enlarge and refine the Archive and database for future users.
Researchers wishing to view the Archive at the Yale University Art Gallery may contact:
Amanda Maples, Research Assistant
Yale University Art Gallery
P.O. Box 208271
New Haven, CT 06520-8271
Phone: 203-432-9521
E-mail: Amanda Maples
Anyone wishing to contribute images or data to the Archive may contact:
Bruno Claessens
Frankrijklei 102 (5)
2000 Antwerp
Phone: 32(0)485 98 20 36
E-mail: Bruno Claessens