Born and raised in New York City and Hempstead, NY, Henry Drewal received his BA from Hamilton College majoring in French and minoring in Fine Arts. After graduation he joined the Peace Corps, taught French and English and organized vacation arts camps in Nigeria. It was during his two years in Nigeria that he apprenticed himself to a Yoruba sculptor. That experience was transformative.
He returned home, entered graduate school at Columbia University in African Studies with an interdisciplinary specialization in African art history, anthropology, and history, studying under Professors Douglas Fraser, Paul Wingert, Hans Himmelheber, Monni Adams, Margaret Mead, Graham Irwin, and David Scanlon. He received two Masters’ degrees (1968/69) and a PhD from Columbia in 1973.
From 1973 to 1990, he taught at The Cleveland State University (where he was chair of the Art Department, developed a collection of African and African Diaspora art, and curated several exhibitions). He was also a Visiting Professor at Purchase College, State University of New York (1986) and the University of California, Santa Barbara (1988).
He has served as Curator of African Art at the Neuberger Museum-SUNY-Purchase (1986), The Cleveland Museum of Art (1988-90), and Curator of African Art at the Toledo Museum of Art (1989). Since 1991 he has been the Evjue-Bascom Professor of Art History and Afro-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Adjunct Curator of African Art at the Chazen Museum of Art, UW-Madison.
Over the years, he has published several books and edited volumes and many articles on various aspects of African art, primarily on the arts of Yoruba-speaking peoples of West Africa and the Yoruba diaspora in the Americas. He has curated many exhibitions of African art, among them: Yoruba: Nine Centuries of African Art and Thought (1989) which toured seven US cities, and Beads, Body, and Soul: Art and Light in the Yoruba Universe (with John Mason), which toured five US cities between 1998-2000. The book/catalogue for this exhibition was a finalist for the Arts Council of the ASA award in 2001.
Since 2001, he has been researching (funded with a Senior Fellowship from the American Institute of Indian Studies) the arts, identities, cultures, and histories of African descendants in India, helping to establish the Siddi Women’s Quilting Cooperative and organizing several exhibitions and sales of their quilts. In addition, he was the guest curator at the Fowler Museum at UCLA for a major traveling exhibition entitled “Mami Wata: Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and Its Diasporas” and is the editor of the “Sacred Waters: Arts for Mami Wata and other Water Divinities in Africa and the Diaspora” which was published by Indiana University Press in 2008.
Most recently (2009) he wrote the catalogue essay for Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria, a major international traveling exhibition that opened in Santander, Spain before going to Madrid and London. It began its tour in Houston and is currently at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art (till May 22, 2011) and will be at the Indianapolis Museum of Art (July 19-January 2012), and other venues later in 2012.