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The anthropology of art studies and analyses the wide range of material objects produced by people around the world. These are considered not merely as aesthetic objects but are understood to play a wider role in people's lives, for instance in their beliefs and rituals. The materials studied include sculpture, masks, paintings, textiles, baskets, pots, weapons, and the human body itself. Anthropologists are interested in the symbolic meanings encoded in such objects, as well as in the materials and techniques used to produce them.

The anthropology of art overlaps with art history, aesthetics, material culture studies, and visual anthropology. However, the anthropological approach to art is distinguished by its focus on the social processes involved in making objects. So, whereas art historians might be interested in the work and lives of named individuals, anthropologists of art are more concerned with the role and status of the artist in the wider community. Another central concern of this branch of the discipline has been to analyse the form and function of objects and to explore the relations between these and aspects of the wider society.

Since the 1960s in particular, anthropologists have produced increasingly sophisticated analyses of visual materials. More recently, closer attention has been paid to the different ideas of aesthetic value in different societies. Increasing attention has also been paid to the ways in which material objects made in one sphere come to have value in another. For example, there have been a number of recent studies of the tourist and art markets as well as of the role of museums.

Text written by Dr. Jeremy Coote


Postgraduate Programmes in the UK

** Currently, there are no postgraduate programmes specifically for Anthropology of Art. However universities such as University of East Anglia provide postgraduate degrees in World Art.**

University of East Anglia



Recommended Resources

The following two trailers are for Je Ne Suis Pas Moi-Meme and Singing Pictures-Women Painters of Naya, films distributed by the Royal Anthropological Institute.



Director Alba Mora, Anna Santamaria
Release 2009
Length 50 mins
Location Cameroon & Brussels
Language English, French (English subtitles)
Prizes/Commendations Material Culture Film Prize 2009

Shot in Cameroon and Brussels, Je ne suis pas moi-même examines the complex network surrounding the international market of African antiquities, and the contradictions in a European art market hungry for new tribal objects. Where do the African masks come from? What journey do these masks make before their unveiling in the windows of the biggest galleries or art collections in Europe? Who determines the economic and aesthetic value of these objects now that colonialism is supposedly dead? And then there’s a continent called Africa, in need of economic resources and therefore willing to sell its cultural heritage or, if need be, to fake it. The authenticity of the objects becomes blurred when the people that once adored them start to sell them.




Director Lina Fruzzetti, Ákos Östör
Release 2005
Length 45 mins
Location India, Kolkata, West Bengal / Asia
Prizes/Commendations Winner Material Culture &Archaelology Film Prize 2005

For generations the Patua (Chitrakara) communities of West Bengal have been painters and singers of stories depicted in scrolls. The film follows the daily lives of Muslim Patua women from Naya villages near Kolkata, which have formed a scroll painters' cooperative.



The Royal Anthropological Institute (RAI) has one of the largest ethnographic film libraries in Europe. Films are available for hire, sale or loan, for educational and academic purposes. Click here for a list of films the RAI distributes on Anthropology of Art.

General - Oxford Brookes University’s website on Anthropology of Art. - Dr. Arnold Perey’s site on Aesthetic Realism and Anthropology. Penn University Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology’s website on body art and modification. - American Museum of Natural History’s exhibition on body art and identity. Pitt Rivers Museum's Body Arts website



The Anthropology of Art 2nd Edition
Layton, Robert (Cambridge University Press, 2009)

The Anthropology of Art:  A Reader
Morphy, H. and Perkins, M. (Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2006)

Between Art and Anthropology: Contemporary Ethnographic Practice
Schneider, A. and Wright, C. (Berg, 2010)

Articles/Online Journals - a national geographic article on skin as art and anthropology.§ioncode=26 – an article in the Times Higher Education by anthropologist Nicholas Thomas on body art and modification. – an article on Anthropology of Art by Stuart Plattner.


Professional Organisations, Groups & Associations

Arts Council England –is the national development agency for the Arts in England.

Arts and Humanities Research Council – supports world class research that furthers our understanding of human culture and creativity.

International Federation of Arts Councils and Culture Agencies
- IFACCA us a global network of arts councils and ministries of culture.


Disclaimer: The above information is provided for information and guidance only. It should not be interpreted as endorsement or otherwise by the Royal Anthropological Institute (RAI) for any external institution listed.  Furthermore, the RAI accepts no responsibility for material created by external parties or the content of external websites.