Aesthetics: Africa

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Aesthetics: Africa

Africa has more than two thousand languages, representing several thousand cultures, each with its own system of logic. No single aesthetic philosophy characterizes the continent, and any concept of a coherent "Africa" is arbitrary, given such extraordinary diversity. Furthermore, a given culture may possess several aesthetic discourses, as may any artistic genre. Globalization complicates matters even more, for one cannot discuss the aesthetics of contemporary African artists without considering transnational paradigms and hybrid visions.

Given such complexities, how can one propose any comprehensive notion of African aesthetics? One may consider key aesthetic concepts of a particular group, such as the Yoruba peoples of Nigeria, to demonstrate the specificity of aesthetics. Other revealing themes are aesthetic experiences crossing the boundaries of "traditional" African societies; the efficacy, concealment, and revelations of African arts; a common aesthetic of accumulation and process; and the performativity and polysemy of African expression. Finally, colonial and postcolonial aesthetic encounters are relevant to a discussion of how changing aesthetics shape present concerns.

Aesthetic Discourse

Aesthetics comes from the Greek word for "sense of perception" and can be defined only within particular cultural systems. Cultural insiders must be consulted to ascertain how and why aesthetic concepts come to hold value. African aesthetic concepts reach into moral and spiritual realms. Linguistic exploration of African aesthetic terms finds that words for beauty and goodness often intersect, as Susan Vogel has noted among the Baule peoples of Côte d'Ivoire and others have discerned among the Lega and Songye of the Congo and the Igbo, Edo, and Ibibio of Nigeria, among others. External perfection and internal moral excellence are linked, as are physical perfection and ideal social order. An anti-aesthetic is also common, as in certain satirical masquerades among the Mende of Sierra Leone and the beauty-beast performances of the Igbo and Ibibio of Nigeria.

Most Western knowledge of African aesthetics is derived from research by African scholars and the few ethnographic studies that have carefully examined aesthetic discourse. The most profound knowledge concerns the Yoruba peoples of Nigeria. Yoruba philosophy reveals how and why their varied arts look and do things the ways they do. A compelling concept of Yoruba aesthetics is ashe, or life force, possessed and conveyed by all art forms, from visual to narrative to performative. Furthermore, ashe provides a tangible contact with the Orisha deities of the Yoruba spiritual pantheon.

Ashe is intrinsically related to the essential nature of creativity called iwa, perceptible to those who have "walked with the ancestors" and thus acquired critical and discerning eyes. Important to iwa are oju-inu, an "inner eye" or the artist's insight, and oju-ona, the external harmony of artworks. For the Yoruba, the beauty of objects, performances, or texts lies not only in what catches the eye but also in the ashe derived from the work's completeness. From these elements one can then discern the artwork's iwa, or essential nature, and finally its ewa, or beauty.

Another critical concept of Yoruba aesthetics is ara, the "evocative power" of visual, verbal, musical, and performance arts associated with the ability to amaze (Roberts and Roberts, p. 27). Ara bespeaks creativity through departure from norms. Yoruba artists are explorers, and their works reflect new understandings. As the Yoruba philosopher Olabiyi Yai states, art is always "unfinished and generative" (p. 107). Yoruba visual and verbal arts are also linked through ori, individuality, and iyato, difference and originality, and Yai argues for a definition of art that is "an invitation to infinite difference and departure, and not a summation for sameness and imitation" (p. 113). The tradition-creativity binary posed for so many cultures is thereby dissolved, and "innovation is implied in the Yoruba idea of tradition" (p. 113).

Cross-Cultural Thematics

Through ashe, Yoruba arts are highly efficaciousthat is, objects work and transform peoples' lives. For many African cultures, how an object looks is related to the way it works, according to strict aesthetic specifications, for protection, healing, communication, mediation, or empowerment. Like aesthetics more generally, each culture has its own concepts of efficacy. For Bantu-speaking peoples of central, eastern, and southern Africa, a power called nkisi is manifest in sculpture and other expression, while for Mande-speaking peoples of western Africa, secret and instrumental knowledge is called nyama. For African Muslim mystics, baraka is a blessing energy emanating from saintly tombs, written and spoken verses, and visual forms. All these terms imply a power-knowledge relationship inhering in works of art, enabling their effectiveness and capacity.

As is true for many other African philosophies, Yoruba aesthetics also privilege knowledge that is allusive, indirect, and enigmatic. Patterns in textiles and scarification; designs on ceramics, houses, and sculpture; graphic inscriptions on walls, masks, and the body; and verbal arts such as proverbs, epics, and songs communicate messages of cultural significance. These can be highly esoteric and understood only by the initiated. For example, geometric patterns on Bamana bogolanfini textiles from Mali encode women's herbal medicinal recipes. In other cases, patterns connote resistance, as did the surreptitious painting of African National Congress colors on homes by southern African women during apartheid.

Another characteristic of many African aesthetic systems is that objects, narratives, songs, and performances are interpreted by audiences in many different ways through intentional semantic variability. African artworks are semantically loaded texts abounding in exegetic richness. For example, among Luba peoples of the southeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, thrones and staffs embody beauty and royal authority but are also mnemonic devices stimulating the making of history. Polysemy is also the product of a processual and accumulative aesthetic. The process of making art is often more valuable than the final products, and such dynamism is the essence of aesthetic experience. Once created, objects may have ephemeral usage before being destroyed or progressing to the next phases in layered histories.

Aesthetics on the Move

Recent study of African aesthetics includes two critically important thrusts: popular urban arts and diasporic art forms of the black Atlantic, and an Indian Ocean world linking eastern Africa with South Asia. Again, aesthetic principles of urban arts are contingent upon local use and intent. For instance, urban paintings by the late Congolese artist Tshibumba Kanda Matulu reflect an aesthetic inspired by European comic books while addressing issues of critical historical and political importance. Ghanaian urban arts reflect a vibrant immediacy stemming from subjects of daily lifefrom soccer to hairstyles to music and filmwhereas arts of urban Senegal conform to the aesthetics of a very particular mystical Islam realized through mass-produced images and inspired by photography. As Karin Barber notes, African popular arts fall between the cracks of "traditional" and "elite" or "modern" art. The hybridized forms of Africa's dynamic popular urban arts reflect not only constant absorption of ideas from the outside but also long-standing adaptive processes through which Africans have always been innovative players in world forums.

Similar dynamism can be witnessed in Africa's diasporic traditions. Much research, in particular that of Robert Farris Thompson, has shown that some of the most powerful aesthetic carryovers from west Africa to the black Atlantic are based on deeply embedded linguistic concepts such as an "aesthetic of the cool." Thompson illuminates the origins of slang, gestures, and attitudes by demonstrating how certain aesthetic categories in the African Americas merge moral philosophy, right living, and artistic quality.

One cannot discuss African aesthetics without addressing the effects of colonialism and postcolonialism and modernist and postmodernist expressive trends of the last century. Encounters and entanglements fostered by the colonial experience in Africa have produced complex issues of appropriation and commodification: compelling research reveals close association between aesthetic norms and capitalist incentives (Phillips and Steiner). This has been noticeable since the colonial conquests of the nineteenth century but earlier as well in Portuguese influence upon the late-fifteenth-century kingdoms of Benin in Nigeria and Kongo in Angola and the impact of Christianity in Ethiopia from the fourth century c.e. African styles were adapted to meet changing economic and political circumstances, with a most compelling case among the Mangbetu people of the northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zaire, whose aesthetics shifted to a European "naturalism" to meet foreign expectations.

Similar dynamics are found on a global scale in the early twenty-first century. Those who study contemporary African arts define modernisms both discrepant from and overlapping with European models. In the early twentieth century, expatriate teachers opened fine arts schools in a number of African cities, introducing new techniques and aesthetics. Often these synthesized existing frameworks produced hybrid forms, as in the workshop of Ulli Beier in Nigeria.

It is safe to say, though, that the most exciting time to study African aesthetics may be the present, for artistic landscapes are extending in many new ways. Scholar-curators such as Okwui Enwezor, artistic director of Documenta 11 in 2002 and the Second Johannesburg Biennale in 1997, and Salah Hassan, editor of Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art, are transcending the boundaries of aesthetic discourse by introducing riveting work of emerging artists. Africa is a continent of richness, resilience, and diasporic energies because of how its traditions adapt to new circumstances. Whether in the domains of the most traditional rural art forms, such as masquerade or shrines, or in tourist arts, colonial encounters, early workshops, and art movements, African arts defy easy categorization; they simply do not sit still, nor have they ever. Across their huge diversities, African aesthetics can only be appreciated for their very multiplicity and systems of representation that they uphold, accommodate, and transform.

See also Arts: Africa ; Literature: African Literature .


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Mary Nooter Roberts