In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ephemeral Art and Performance in Africa

  • Introduction
  • Ephemeral Art: Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Architecture
  • Mural Painting
  • Altars and Reliquaries
  • Healing Arts
  • Power Objects
  • Funerary Arts
  • Body Arts
  • Material Culture and Everyday Objects
  • Contemporary Art
  • Masquerade Arts
  • Initiation Arts
  • Contemporary Performance Art
  • Sound
  • Installation
  • Time-Based/Temporal Art
  • Video Art

Art History Ephemeral Art and Performance in Africa
Aimée Bessire
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0162


Ephemeral art presents an interesting and not often covered lens in the field of African studies. It provides insight into the values placed on materials and the opportunity for deeper understanding of cultural traditions, spiritual beliefs, or individual philosophies. Ephemeral art may include transient materials intended to decay, those created in order to be destroyed, or even a piece marking a temporal instant, as in performances and site-specific installations. The ephemeral is what is seen, used, or performed until it decays, is buried, destroyed, or completes its durational moment. Performances exist as a moment in time—once past, they remain a memory. In this sense performance is ephemeral. While there is a great deal of scholarship on performance traditions, there is very little on African ephemeral art. The two topics remain distinct in the scholarly literature with overlaps in studies on the symbolism of ephemeral materials in performance traditions. The following bibliography is organized in two separate categories: ephemeral art and performance art, each connected through the trope of transiency.

Ephemeral Art: Introduction

As Allyson Purpura has noted “the ephemeral is at once a concept, a condition, a process, and an analytic framework” (Purpura 2010, 13; cited under General Overviews). Due to their short life-cycle, these arts are rarely preserved in museum collections for long-term study. The transiency of the objects is part of what makes this topic such a rich one for study. Purpura has suggested: “Ephemerality defies conventional expectations around preservation, display, and commodification of art and confounds the museum’s mission to preserve works in perpetuity” (Purpura 2009, 11; cited under General Overviews). While there have been few cross-cultural studies on ephemeral arts in Africa, with the exception of the collection of essays in the two issues of African Arts (See Purpura and Kreamer 2009 and Purpura 2010 in General Overviews), the texts in this section present many case studies on ephemeral arts in cultural context. The essays and books are organized by thematic category of ephemeral art: architecture, mural painting, altars and reliquaries, healing arts, power objects, funerary objects, body arts, material culture and everyday life, and contemporary art.

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