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Personal profile

Academic Background

B.A. Social Anthropology; University of Sussex (1971)

M.A. History of Ideas; University of Sussex (1972)

D.Phil, Anthropology; Oxford University (1975)

Administrative Posts

  • Chairman, The Sainsbury Institute for Art (since 2011)
  • Head of School, January 2009 - September 2011


Professor Mack is an internationally-recognised authority on the arts and cultures of Africa, where his research has focused on Congo, southern Sudan, Kenya, Madagascar and Zanzibar. He has also travelled and researched in parts of West Africa. At UEA he is Professor of World Art Studies, in which capacity he has published extensively on more thematic subjects, taking a broadly anthropological approach to art, material culture and archaeology. Recent books have discussed questions of memory and art, the process of miniaturisation and most recently the cultural significance of the sea. What connects these works is an interest in the artistic and material engagement with different environments.

Professor Mack is working on a book project for completion in 2015 looking at the relationship between art in death in sub-Saharan Africa and developing a new project on coastal communities. Recent work has included a number of essays which explore drawing and pattern-making and in particular the assumptions which have underscored and in some cases misrepresented the processes involved when regarded in a cross-cultural context.

Website: http://www.sru.uea.ac.uk/faculty-john_mack.php


Professor Mack is currently Chairman of UEA’s Sainsbury Institute for Art and has recently come to the end of his term of office as President of British Institute in Eastern Africa. Before joining UEA in 2004 Professor Mack was Keeper of the British Museum’s Department of Ethnography (Museum of Mankind), which he joined in 1976, and was also Senior Keeper of the British Museum as a whole from 197-2003. Although his responsibilities involved coordinating research and curatorial activities across a wide field, his specialism has been in Africa and the western Indian Ocean. He remains an advisor for the British Museum’s International African Programmes and is a recent President of the British Institute in Eastern Africa (sponsored by the British Academy). He has overseen a number of major exhibitions and gallery installations, including ‘Museum of the Mind, Art and Memory in World Cultures’ (British Museum, 2003) and The Sainsbury Africa Galleries, which opened at the British Museum in 2001.
He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2009.

Key Research Interests

African art and cultures

Museums, memory, cultural heritage

Art in a cross-cultural context

Art and the environment

Current Research Projects

Following research leave in spring 2012 two outstanding research projects were completed and are now published (The Sea, A Cultural History and 'Making and Seeing Pattern') . Two new projects are in development. The first is a book on the association of artistic practice with death in different African communities. This draws on themes which have been explored in seminars and lectures and is intended to be a book which will be of use to graduate and postgraduate students and a wider readership. It draws on fieldwork on thsese topics in madagascar and elsewhere in continental Africa. Its contents include conceptions of death and ancestorhood; funerals, coffins and shrouds; masquerade and performance; shrines; cenotaphs and memorials; and contemporary practices. The approach will be both anthropological and art historical and include archaeological, ethnographic and contemporary examples.  An realted exhibition exploring this theme is planned beginning in the Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts in Autumn 2017.
A second project concerns 'Coastal Communities' which develops the themes of Mack's recent book on the cultural history of the sea.  It focuses on the role of the coastline as an intermediate zone and place of transformations, symbolically and culturally, between the sea and the land.  A conference devoted to the ways in which issues to do with the Sea are configured in museums in the UK and internationally is planned for May 2015 through the Sainsbury Institute for Art with support from the Gatsby Trust.  This is preparatory to a developed research project and funding appliation to take forward the emerging ideas with a team of local and international collaborators.   

Forthcoming publications:

Mack John  (2015) 'Wittgenstein in Africa'.  World Art Journal.

Mack John (2015) 'Burial Communities in colonial Africa'.  Minpaku, National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka Japan

Mack, John (2013) 'Baskets of Wisdom: A Central African trope' In T. Heslop (ed.) Basketry and Beyond: Constructing Cultures. Brill. (In Press)

Mack, John (2015) Art and Death in sub-Saharan Africa. Reaktion Books

Areas of Expertise

The anthropology of art; the arts and cultures of Africa and the western Indian Ocean; themes in the study of art as a world phenomenon; museums (esp. ethnographic museums) and cultural institutions.

Teaching Interests

  • The comparative study of art
  • Traditional and contemporary art of Africa
  • Museum studies and cultural heritage
  • Art and the construction of memory 

Research supervision 

Interested in supervising research students in all areas of African art and anthropology, and topics related to museums and cultural heritage. 

Recent and current PhD students as primry supervisor include:

Sarah Worden: Hausa Robes of Honour (2007)
Lisa Binder: Contemporary Africa Art (2009)
Fiona Sheales: Early 19th century Ghana (2011)
Laura de Becker: Representations of genocide in Rwanda (2012)
Sokratis Kioussis: Nature and Culture in contemporary Greek museum practice (2012)
Vicky van Bockhaven: Leopard man cults in eastern Congo (2013)
Kiprop Lagat: Memorialisation after the Nairobi bomb attack (2014)

Rebekah Shepperd: The Torday expeditions to Congo (1900-1908)
Manuela Huseman: African art in Germany in the early 20th century
Emily Crane: Contemporary artists’ workshops in Africa and India.

Rosalie Hans: New museum models in Africa

Catherine Eliott: Historical collections from South Africa

James Green: late 19th century sources on Congo and Angola


Examples of modules taught 

  • Concealing and Revealing: Ancestors, Spirits and Kings
  • The Practice of Cultural Heritage
  • Adjacencies: Comparative approaches to art
  • African Art and Archaeology
  • Material Worlds

Expertise related to UN Sustainable Development Goals

In 2015, UN member states agreed to 17 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all. This person’s work contributes towards the following SDG(s):

  • SDG 16 - Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions