While Sieber won academic credibility for their field, Martínez-Ruiz finds that he must still confront the same questions about classification that Sieber did. Martínez-Ruiz notes that when the objects he studies are on view in a museum devoted to culture or history, they are often called “artifacts.” When the same objects appear in an art museum, they are called “art.” Eliminating this distinction “will be a long fight,” he says.

In my mind, to be named to this appointment is as much a responsibility as an honor.

Martínez-Ruiz came to Bloomington from Oxford and has also taught at the University of Cape Town, Stanford University, Rhode Island School of Design, and the Instituto Superior de Arte in Havana. Last fall, his first semester at IU, he taught a course on museum display that dealt in part with the same classification issues Sieber faced. The students in Martínez-Ruiz’s course designed an exhibition, as well as accompanying educational and promotional material, that was presented at the Mathers in December 2018.

Of both African and Cuban ancestry, Martínez-Ruiz grew up in a household that practiced African religions. In 1986, he was drafted into the Cuban military forces and sent to Angola. “My first step into African art was more about self-discovery,” he explains. “African religions and African moral philosophy and ethics played an important role in who I am and how I approach life.”

His family’s religion is expressed through a graphic writing system that uses over a thousand symbols to convey meaning rather than a phonetic alphabet. So it makes sense that Martínez-Ruiz’s first research—and book—investigated Kongo Graphic Writing and Other Narratives of the Sign.

He explains his early work as a “journey back in time, a kind of reverse engineering to try to understand how this graphic writing system developed.” (For readers who wonder about the orthographic difference between Congo and Kongo: the historic Kingdom of Kongo, which lasted from the 14th century to the early 20th century, encompassed the land now occupied by Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo.)


My first step into African art was more about self-discovery. African religions and African moral philosophy and ethics played an important role in who I am and how I approach life.

Part of Martínez-Ruiz’s research involves exploring the neurological differences in the way our brains comprehend alphabets and symbols. “There’s a limit to how many words and pages you can read at one time. Yet our brains don’t tire when it comes to symbols and signs,” he explains. Martínez-Ruiz notes that early Christian Bibles and Bibles for children have little text, relying rather on the conversation between text and symbols to create meaning.

He is currently working on two books. One of them is about Central African rock paintings, which he calls the Rosetta stone of Kongo culture. Compared to rock paintings in Southern Africa, Australia, and North America, Central African rock paintings have received little attention because they are located in rainforests and in countries torn by civil wars. And yet Martínez-Ruiz can trace many of the symbols and signs in current Kongo graphic writing systems back to rocks located in today’s Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo that are thousands of years old.

He is also finishing a book on the religions of the Kongo and the variants that developed during the African diaspora in Haiti, Brazil, Cuba, and elsewhere. His book will be the first of its kind. It’s just as difficult to study Kongo religions, which had been completely decimated by the 1930s, Martínez-Ruiz notes.

He quotes a 20th-century Baptist missionary in Africa who was frustrated that though he’d destroyed a thousand Kongo religious objects in a single night in 1935, by a month later, the local people had created new objects. Unlike the minister, Martínez-Ruiz is awed and impressed—not discouraged—by the resiliency of the Kongo peoples in the face of cultural imperialism.

In both books—and indeed in all his work—Martínez-Ruiz says “I’m interested in how visual culture allows us to become human.” Like Roy Sieber, who once said that “as an art historian you start with a work of art; you end with that work of art; but you can go anywhere in between,” Martínez-Ruiz also considers himself a “flexible art historian. I’m not buying into the rigidity of each particular discipline,” he explains.