The Language of Beauty in African Art

April 20, 2022 By: Adenike Cosgrove

The Language of Beauty in African Art is the first major exhibition presented by the Kimbell Art Museum in 25 years to focus solely on African works. Organized by the Art Institute of Chicago, it looks at the pieces predominantly through the aesthetic perspective and aesthetic/related language of the African people who created and used them.

The exhibition runs from 3 April – 31 July 2022 at Kimbell Art Museum and 20 November 2022 – 27 February 2023 at the Art Institute of Chicago, and showcases 220 objects brought together from collections around the world. Largely based on the research and writings of Wilfried van Damme, who served as an advisor to the project, it is a comparative analysis of beauty and ugliness in the arts of various African cultures.

As well as shining a light on cultural regions including the Chokwe, Kuba, Mende, Yoruba, Lega, and Songye, The Language of Beauty in African Art tells a story of the interaction between art and language, Western appreciations of African art, the religious function of aesthetics and the relationship between beauty and ugliness.

With the exhibition now underway, ÌMỌ̀ DÁRA caught up with Constantine Petridis, chair and curator of Arts of Africa at the Art Institute of Chicago, to further explore the vision behind the project.

Section I: Whose Beauty?

Chokwe Male Figure (Identified as Chibinda Ilunga), Angola. 19th century. Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, AP 1978.05
Chokwe Mwana Pwo or Pwo Female Face Mask, Angola. 19th to early 20th century. Private collection. Courtesy of Schweizer Premodern, New York

Tell us a little bit about yourself. How did you get into the classic African art field?

I'm of Greek descent. My parents are Greeks from the diaspora: my mother was from Egypt, and my father’s father was from what is Turkey today.

Wait, so you're African!

Well, it depends on who you ask, but I'm happy to take it. But I was born and raised in Belgium and did my entire schooling in Belgium. Art History and Archaeology was my degree at Ghent University, and I remember that I developed this interest in the arts of Africa at the start of my academic training.

In Belgium, African art was taught as part of the art history curriculum, at least at Ghent, since 1932. Much before anywhere else in the world. The first PhDs based on fieldwork were by two Belgians, more than ten years before Roy Sieber.

So, Belgium was a unique case because of a few individuals who played the leading role in developing that speciality. Frans Olbrechts, being the most important figure, was not trained as an art historian. He was trained as a linguist and then as an ethnologist, but he developed an interest in the arts, in part thanks to his studies with Franz Boas at Columbia University in New York in the 1920s. He received the chance to be appointed as a lecturer at Ghent University. So ever since, African art was a part of the curriculum, meaning that when you studied art history, you had no other choice than to also study African art. Everybody was exposed to it. Unfortunately, African art history is barely being taught anywhere in Europe today.

And so, for me, even though I had some vague knowledge of Africa and even perhaps African art, my course with one of Olbrechts’ students, Herman Burssens, was the first real introduction to the subject. It also seemed very unexplored and understudied. There seemed to be a lot to be discovered, to be learned.

And then the other thing — and this really transformed my own ambitions in terms of an art history student — was that I was lucky enough to study around the time of two major African art exhibitions. Exhibitions that have marked me ever since and that I continue to carry with me to this day.

One was Utotombo at the Palais des Beaux-Arts (now known as Bozar) in Brussels, African art from Belgian private collections in 1988, which in many ways was an encyclopaedic survey of the arts of Africa. It was very impressive in its diversity and its richness, in the way it was presented as art and with an emphasis on the quality of the sculptures. Still with the recognition of the cultural context but it was predominantly the impact of the forms and the visual presence of the objects that really marked me.

Section II: How Objects Speak

II.1: Prestige
Yoruba Olowe of Ise (c. 1869–1938) Veranda Post (Opo Ogoga), Ekiti, Ikere, Nigeria. 1910–14. The Art Institute of Chicago, Major Acquisitions Centennial Fund, 1984.550
II.2: Value
Kongo Yombe Staff Finial, Democratic Republic of the Congo. 19th to early 20th century. National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, 2005-6-33
II.3: Extravagance
Kuba Mbwoongntey Palm Wine Cup, Democratic Republic of the Congo. 19th to early 20th century. Brooklyn Museum, 56.6.37

Let's talk 'The Language of Beauty in African Art'. What's the story behind the exhibition and what can visitors expect?

The exhibition takes a look at the aesthetics of traditional African art. A topic that has a long scholarly history but is still rarely applied in either curatorial or academic practice.

For a long time, there was a notion that aesthetics don't exist in Africa. Because we are so attached to our own very narrow perception of aesthetics, as defined by Western aesthetic philosophy. While some scholars have developed an interest in local aesthetics, it is still largely unexplored among the general public.

Of course, aesthetics exist within Africa and always have. There are very complicated aesthetic philosophies that are different from ours but that explain why objects look the way they do. I’m interested in how these philosophies align with ours, and I don’t think we have fully crossed that bridge yet.

There is room for many different perspectives, and I think that, ideally, we should all work together and exchange our passionate ideas and interests. However, we must always leave room to acknowledge and even centre local ideas about what beauty is, what ugliness is and how they translate in the arts and in the appreciation of that art.

But this is the first time I have very rigorously made a selection that was as much as possible inspired by local theories of beauty and ugliness and the language in which these theories are expressed.

I had the idea of doing this exhibition with the involvement of Wilfried van Damme for many years because I thought it was such a central topic and it seems so unnecessarily overlooked. But it took me a long time to have the confidence to put it on because it is a vast and complicated topic.

So we have an exhibition that tries to do very much in terms of geographic span and scope and, therefore, is ambitious.

It's a topic that is even more pertinent today as we look differently upon colonization. One way to explore this is to look back and ask how the makers and users of these arts value, appraise, and understand their aesthetics.

I hope the exhibition shows that the arts of Africa are immensely diverse in terms of their aesthetics but also that they reveal many commonalities. So, I'm looking at the specificity of the sculptures but then also trying to draw lines and make connections.

Section III: Western Appreciations and Appropriations

III.1: Abstraction in the Forests of GabonKota
Kota: Shamaye Mbulu Ngulu Figure, Gabon. Late 19th to early 20th century. The Art Institute of Chicago, 1968.788
III.2: Expressionism in the Grassfields of Cameroon
Possibly Fang, Mabea, Head (Identified as a Monkey), Cameroon. Possibly 17th to early 19th century. Collection of Laura and John Arnold, Houston
III.3: Naturalism in Central Africa
Kuba: Bushoong, Ndop Portrait Figure of a King, Mishe miShyaang maMbul, Democratic Republic of the Congo. c. 1760–80. Brooklyn Museum, 61.33

Something that comes through in the exhibition is the difference between how collectors view these objects and how scholars and curators view them. For collectors, it's very aesthetic and emotional, whereas with scholars, it's got a more anthropological aspect to it.

I think you're touching on a fundamental point. Yes, I am interested in the object as 'object,' and I still believe in its value and it being a source of information and understanding.

I'm personally touched, moved and compelled by the objects. But during my training, we were taught that we could not express our qualitative judgments about them. The word masterpiece is taboo. And that's basically what led to the current project.

My awareness of this is not new at all because we were taught that there is a local aesthetic. There are local criteria and standards to judge, evaluate, and appraise art. And these local criteria are obviously verbalized in the languages of the peoples themselves. Not everybody has access to them, but they matter.

Then there is the beauty of the craftsmanship. We know that this is highly valued locally. In some cultures, the root of the word art encompasses skill and craftsmanship.
But putting the skill level involved aside, what interests me more is to understand why. Why do people like a shiny surface, an elaborate hairstyle or strong legs? We know that those values and attributes are appreciated in real life, so it is understandable that they would transfer to a spiritual and creative world that is very much imagined. The outward appearance usually reveals something from within, too.

But because of the anthropological dimension to the study of African art and the emphasis on functionality, students and scholars erroneously concluded that the object's appearance, let alone its aesthetics, didn't matter as long as it was functional.

However, at the core of our current project and guided by my training, there was always the idea that form is not a coincidence. Form has meaning in and of itself. And because it has meaning, a work’s visual appearance influences its functionality and its success.

The better or more beautiful the object is, the more successful it will be. And it will be perceived as such by the people who made it, but especially by the people who used or owned it.

Section IV: Standards of Beauty

IV.1: Clarity | Jeya among the Bamana
Bamana Ciwara Kun Pair of Headdresses, Baninko region, Mali. Mid-19th to early 20th century. The Art Institute of Chicago, 1965.6–7
IV.2: Youthfulness | Foninge among the Mende
Sherbro or Mende Sowei Helmet Mask, Sierra Leone. Early to mid-20th century. The Art Institute of Chicago, 1997.361
IV.3: Moderation | Iwontunwonsi among the Yoruba
Yoruba Oshe Sango Dance Staff, Yewa, Nigeria. Early 20th century. The Art Institute of Chicago, 2003.177
IV.4: Balance | Bibwe among the Fang
Fang Eyema Byeri Male Reliquary Guardian Figure, Mvai, Gabon. 19th to early 20th century. Dallas Museum of Art, 2000.3.McD

When you say the word 'masterpiece' is taboo, what would you define as a masterpiece in that case?

An object that corresponds in every sense to the ideals and the standards of beauty as verbalized by the culture in question. An appropriate definition would be a combination of the perfect form and the ideal content because one does not work without the other.

The exhibition introduces indigenous knowledge and assessments of beauty and ugliness — how beauty and ugliness were or are defined, understood, and experienced – but also the language in which this understanding and evaluation was or is expressed.

But the exhibition also recognises that if we do not have that first-hand knowledge, we can hypothesize and make deductions about the works’ aesthetics based on their appearance, their forms, and their materials.

The exhibition’s last section transcends notions of beauty and ugliness and argues that there may be another aesthetic category that fuses or combines the beautiful and the ugly.

Section V: Moral Meanings of Beauty

V.1: Beauty-and-Goodness-in-One among the Lega
Lega Sawamazembe Man’s Hat, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Early to mid-20th century. The Cleveland Museum of Art, 1955.211
V.2: Virtue in Personal Adornment
Southern Nguni: possibly Xhosa, Under-Apron (probably Inkciyo), South Africa. 19th to early 20th century. The Cleveland Museum of Art, 2010.206
V.3: Nurturing Women
Dogon, Mother-and-Child Figure, Mali. 19th to early 20th century. The Menil Collection, Houston, X 873
V.4: Forceful Men
Male Singiti Figure, Hemba: Niembo; Democratic Republic of the Congo. 19th to early 20th century. Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, AP 1979.03

We find it interesting that the Western market is shifting its definition of what it considers beautiful African art to be. What are your thoughts on that?

Yes, we need to acknowledge subjectivity and changing tastes. It's a matter of taste and not just in the market. It has also shifted among scholars and academics. But generally speaking, objects that are locally identified as beautiful have earned more attention among Western audiences than those that are viewed as ugly in their original settings.

One of the reasons is that many of these intentionally ugly objects, as they are identified locally, are not accessible to everybody. So, as a researcher or collector, you hardly get to see, let alone ask questions about or acquire these objects.

Section VI: Religious Function of Beauty

VI.1: Enticing the Spirits among the Dan
Dan, Female Figure (Lü Mè), Liberia. 20th century. Dragonfly Collection, Garance Primat, Switzerland
VI.2: Appeasing the Spirits among the Baule
Baule Female Figure, Côte d’Ivoire. 19th century. National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, 85-15-2
VI.3: Honoring the Spirits among the Luba
Luba, Lupanda or Luhanda Bowstand, Democratic Republic of the Congo. 19th century. MAS | Museum aan de Stroom, Antwerp, AE.0772
VI.4: Gracing the Body and the Head
Yoruba Head (possibly a King), Ife, Nigeria. 12th to 15th century. Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, AP 1994.04

Absolutely. There was an interesting piece that recently came to the market, a Fang mask designed to look terrifying and used to sentence wrongdoers to death. But many see its long face removed from context and think it is really beautiful.

Right, and that's at the core here. External interpretation, the foreign imposition of taste, is not necessarily and very often not at all equal to the local perception. That's what I'm interested in, the indigenous, vernacular viewpoint and opinion, and how local languages verbalize the beauty of an object.

One section of the exhibition does however examine how and if we can view aesthetic value based on external appearance without falling into the trap of saying well, it looks beautiful to me, so that's probably what it is.

Section VII: Intentional Ugliness

VII.1: Objects of Terror and Fear
Baga or Nalu Helmet Mask (Banda or Kumbaruba), Guinea or Guinea-Bissau. Mid-20th century. The Art Institute of Chicago, 1997.360
VII.2: Horrifying Masks among the We
Northern We Face Mask (Tonhu Zri), Côte d’Ivoire. 19th to early 20th century. Private collection, France. Courtesy of Yann Ferrandin, Paris
VII.3: Evil Masks among the Ibibio
Ibibio Face Mask (Idiok Ekpo), Nigeria. 20th century. National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, 97-8-1

Are there many famous examples where scholars have got it wrong, perceiving something as beautiful when local artists and experts report that it was created to be the opposite?

The Fang ngil mask is a great example, as is the Baga or Nalu banda mask. Although recent research has shown that the meaning of the banda mask’s aesthetic has changed, early observers uncovered that it was locally perceived as an appallingly scary apparition. Today, we would see it as fantastical and surreal. It's colourful and flowery. I don't think many would say it is an ugly object at all. But it's very complex.

Section VII: Intentional Ugliness

VII.4: Humorous Imperfections
Bamana Koredugaso Head of a Hobbyhorse, Mali. 19th to early 20th century. The Cleveland Museum of Art, 1935.307
VII.5: Perfect Pairings
Senufo Kponyungo Helmet Mask, Senambele, Côte d’Ivoire. 19th to early 20th century. The Art Institute of Chicago, 1963.842
VII.6: The Brave and the Beautiful
Igbo Mgbedike Helmet Mask, Nigeria. 20th century. Indianapolis Museum of Art, 1989.891

What are your thoughts on the market trying to identify individualistic styles? As the West defines what is beautiful, it tries to label the artists to separate those pieces from the general group.

The insistence on the role and the contribution of individual artists, and the desire to name the artist, in fact, the whole debate around the role of the artist is an old one. I think what matters is that it took people in the field time to recognize that there were artists to begin with, let alone that these artists were creative individuals.

One of the very first to study artists in Africa in the so-called traditional or historical fields of African art was Pieter Jan Vandenhoute, one of Olbrechts’s first students at Ghent University. In the 1930s, specifically in 1938-39, he spent a year in Côte d'Ivoire with the Dan and related peoples. While there, as he worked with artists, specifically with mask carvers, and even apprenticed with them, he developed an interest in how the Dan people evaluate and qualify their works of art, in particular their masks. In doing so, Vandenhoute became one of the first African art scholars to study local aesthetics and the domain of expressing beauty and ugliness.

It's long been an art historical endeavour to identify artists. But with the whole notion of the anonymous artists who are given nicknames, it has been pushed to an extreme and has become almost silly. It's become more important than it should be. What has been observed in many parts of Africa is that once the object leaves the artist's workshop, the idea that a human made this object becomes less relevant. Because it's not about who made the object, but what the object does.

This ties into the difference between art for art’s sake and art for life’s sake. Objects created for use transcend their form, and they will often change in appearance as their function evolves over time.

With art for art’s sake, objects are primarily made to be admired. This is a fairly new phenomenon, largely popularised in the 19th century. Most objects created in Africa fall into the category of art for life’s sake. Meaning that they have a functional purpose, and are designed to aid the human experience.

Section VIII: Awesome Art

Kongo Nkisi Nkondi Female(?) Figure, Manyanga; Democratic Republic of the Congo. 19th century. Weill Collection, Paris
Songye Nkishi Male Figure, Democratic Republic of the Congo. 19th to early 20th century. Dallas Museum of Art, 2014.4.1.McD
Songye Nkishi: Yankima Male Figure, Kalebwe, Democratic Republic of the Congo. 19th to early 20th century. Museum of Art at Newfields, 2005.21

And finally, the most important question: what do you want the viewer of this exhibition to leave feeling, thinking and questioning?

First of all, a recognition of African aesthetics as such — a very conscious knowledge, understanding and philosophy about beauty and ugliness in the African communities in which the arts in question were created and used. And that it matters that the artists conceived objects with that idea of aesthetics in mind — and that even if it's also about many other things, the beauty and the ugliness, the aesthetic dimension, is essential from an indigenous point of view. It's not just a Western idea that was imposed on the arts.

As well as taking into account local aesthetic criteria of excellence when assessing and evaluating the arts, we must also realise that beauty and ugliness are about more than outward, visual appearance. They are about meaning and thus also about context. You cannot separate content and form, as one informs the other.

Meaning contributes to the appearance of the object, but also to its aesthetic impact. So, to understand aesthetics, you need to contextualize the art and be open to different expressions of shared human values.

If people come away considering these ideas, then I'd be very happy.

Constantine Petridis

Constantine Petridis, chair and curator of Arts of Africa, joined the Art Institute in 2016. He recently co-curated the 2020 exhibition Malangatana: Mozambique Modern with Hendrik Folkerts and Felicia Mings, and in 2019 he oversaw the refresh of the museum’s permanent gallery of Arts of Africa. Before coming to Chicago, he held research, curatorial, and teaching positions at the Research Foundation - Flanders, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cleveland Museum of Art, Case Western Reserve University, the Art Gallery of Ontario, and the Indianapolis Museum of Art. An accomplished author, his most recent publications include the monograph Luluwa: Central African Art Between Heaven and Earth (2018) and the edited volume Speaking of Objects: African Art at the Art Institute of Chicago (2020).

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