'The Language of Beauty in African Art' explores how beauty and ugliness are identified within the cultures that created and used works that Western scholars and connoisseurs have admired for almost a century. The exhibition seeks to decolonise the appreciation of the arts of Africa.
Organised in eight sections and comprising 220 works of primarily historical African art borrowed from collections around the world, the exhibition focuses on objects created by cultures located primarily in West, Central and Southern Africa, most dating to the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
'The Language of Beauty in African Art' runs from 3 April – 31 July 2022 at Kimbell Art Museum and 20 November 2022 – 27 February 2023 at the Art Institute of Chicago.
The exhibition begins with an examination of the interaction between art and language, featuring several examples of the widely admired art of the Chokwe people. A Chibinda Ilunga figure, long lauded for its refinement and relative naturalism, embodies the Chokwe term utotombo, which describes a sculpture executed with skill and care.
This section exploits the assumption that physical characteristics of African works can help us understand the aesthetic standards of their source cultures. The utilitarian implements on display can fulfil their functions without embellishments—thus, their nonfunctional features are likely ideological and connote status prestige and beauty.
The next section of the exhibition looks at how, beginning in the early 1900s, Western appreciations of African art focused on the visual appearance of objects divorced from their original contexts instead of seeking and sharing knowledge about how originating cultures understood, viewed and experienced them.
The main section of the exhibition highlights the meanings and functions of the beauty of African art. African artists, patrons and critics conceive and appraise their local arts according to their own communities’ collective standards of excellence.
Investigations into assessments by sub-Saharan artists, patrons, and members of the public revealed a set of aesthetic criteria widely shared across the region: symmetry and balance, moderation, clarity, and youthfulness. Of special note are the recurring connections between beauty and goodness, ugliness and immorality.
Of special note are the recurring connections between beauty and goodness, ugliness and immorality. This equation of the visual with the ethical is especially apparent in sculptural representations of the human form, particularly as they reflect idealised conceptions of woman- and manhood.
In addition to signalling moral status, beauty fulfils a religious function by fostering interactions with immaterial worlds. In these contexts, beautiful objects are meant to honour, please, lure, and appease spirit beings of different sorts: the beauty admired by the ancestors is the same as that praised by the living.
Certain other arts require deliberate ugliness in order to be efficacious. This aesthetic marker seems to appear in three dominant contexts. One is the representation of evil, as in the illustration of immoral behaviour in certain masquerades among the Igbo (Nigeria), especially in the binary set known as “Beauty and the Beast.”
We also find ugliness in scenarios where the intent is to inspire fear and terror. Thirdly, ugliness may provide comic relief, as is the case with mask characters seen in cultures in both West and Central Africa.
The final section features objects that convey ideas and feelings of force, vigour, fascination and terror by combining beauty and ugliness in a way that makes them at once irresistibly compelling and profoundly repelling. This aesthetic inspires what the Kongo people refer to as ngitukulu, an experience of astonishment or awe.
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