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Art History and Visual Culture

Art History & Visual Culture courses introduce students to a diverse range of visual images and objects. Although the focus is on history of art, both Western and African, a number of popular forms of culture are looked at, particularly in the first year of study. The course is also structured in terms of themes, conceptual areas and cultural practices rather than in terms of a traditional historical approach in which students study the history of art as a sequence of periods and styles. In placing the emphasis on thematic modules, the intention is to equip students with critical and conceptual skills that would enable them to research selected areas of art history and visual culture independently.

Art History & Visual Culture courses are offered by the Department of Fine Art to students studying Studio Practice as well as those who are not. For those studying Studio Practice, Art History & Visual Culture is necessarily the second major in the degree (see Programmes). Students not studying Studio Practice may take Art History & Visual Culture as a credit for a year or two, and have the option of taking the course as a major.

There are numerous career opportunities for graduates of Art History & Visual Culture. For an indication of these, see FAQ. Art History & Visual Culture also combines well with other subjects offered in the Humanities Faculty. An understanding of the relationship between representation and society can be inestimably useful for students of disciplines such as Journalism, Philosophy, History, Political Studies, Sociology, Psychology, Drama, English Language and Linguistics, English and other languages. Studio Practice students, meanwhile, will find in the Art History & Visual Culture courses various concepts, themes, contentions, arguments, discourses and sites for intervention, which they might want to explore at a personal level in their practical work.

Art History & Visual Culture 1

The most diverse course is Art History & Visual Culture 1, which includes lectures on film, clothing, advertising, performance and carnivals, as well as a semester-long module on museum practices and the politics of display. Students are thus encouraged to engage with a variety of forms of visual culture and also to question the way in which such forms are exhibited in certain types of sites. Additionally, there are modules dealing with art historical genres (landscape, still life, portraiture and the nude), which are considered in both international and local contexts. Other modules consider the concept of space as something that determines our experience of reality and include the meanings of spaces in the development of heritage sites. The course is aimed to develop the ability of students to look beyond the literal façade of visual culture and to interpret it in the light of a critical awareness of the fact that our everyday ‘reality’ is, in fact, shaped by numerous socio-cultural influences and ideological constructs.

Art History & Visual Culture 2

The Art History & Visual Culture 2 course offers a sustained engagement with the two primary art-historical paradigms of the nineteenth-twentieth centuries, Modernism and Post-Modernism in both ‘Western’ and ‘African’ contexts. Various periods and movements are looked at, such as Realism, Pop art, African Modernism, and Post-Modern art, and are situated in relation to certain thematic or discursive topics, e.g., the sublime in Romanticism, parody in Pop Art, gender in feminist practices, and issues of displacement in the African diaspora. The Art History & Visual Culture 2 course seeks to extend the groundwork done in first year by investigating art in its historical, thematic and critical context. An important focus in the course is on how changes in art help us to think about changes in society and culture, since art represents and helps to constitute socio-cultural trends and currents.

Art History & Visual Culture 3

Art History & Visual Culture 3 is structured around the broad primary theme of ‘Art, Society and Power’. There are various sub-themes which offer diverse approaches to equally diverse material. While these may vary from year to year, they normally include: Power and Protest in South African Art, ‘Race’ and Identity in South Africa, Violence and the Aesthetics of Crime, Gender in the Renaissance, Tattoos and Body Painting, Veiling in Middle Eastern Art and Contesting Masculinities. As with Art History & Visual Culture 1 and Art History & Visual Culture 2, the third year course aims to involve students in the question of how art intersects with society in the process of producing meaning. It also seeks to emphasise that there is often a connection between art and power, because art, by the way that it is framed and situated, can become politicised – sometimes highly so – to the point of transforming into a mouthpiece for social ideals or even a vehicle for social control.

Art History & Visual Culture 4

Students do two ‘papers’ – normally two of the following: Critical Theory; Feminism and Women Artists in South Africa; Transnational Perspectives on Contemporary African Art. Each student also produces a long essay or ‘mini thesis’ on a topic of his or her choice developed in consultation with a supervisor.

Undergraduate assessment

Assessment in all Art History & Visual Culture undergraduate courses is primarily by means of essays and examinations. Tests are normally undertaken only at first year level. Seminars (oral presentations) are introduced at fourth year level, and these are used to enhance students’ ability to conceive, structure and develop a text in relation to a visual display. Examinations are written in June and in November.

Postgraduate degrees

The Department of Fine Art offers Honours, Masters and PhD degrees in Art History and Visual Culture. We actively encourage postgraduate study by all students who meet the required criteria for admission to the higher degrees.


There are three ‘papers’ (course components) offered, and these are normally on: Critical Theory; Feminism and Women Artists in South Africa; Transnational Perspectives on Contemporary African Art. Each student also produces a long essay or ‘mini thesis’ on a topic of his or her choice developed in consultation with a supervisor.

Masters and PhD

The Masters and PhD degrees are by thesis.

Teaching Venues

Art History & Visual Culture lectures are conducted in the main lecture theatre in the Fine Art Sculpture/Painting Building, while tutorials are conducted in the seminar room in the Main Fine Art Building.


Art History & Visual Culture courses are presented chiefly by Mbali khoza, Songezile Churchill Madikida and Thembinkosi Goniwe



Last Modified: Wed, 15 Jan 2020 10:09:51 SAST