The Language of African Art
Modern artists admired African sculpture for its formal qualities, but a new exhibition aims to recapture its moral and spiritual meaningA pair of Bamana antelope headdresses from Mali. The Art Institute of Chicago, Ada Turnbull Hertle Endowment
By Susan Delson, March 18, 2022
For Pablo Picasso and other 20th-century European masters, African art was a revelation—innovative, sophisticated and to their eyes strikingly modern. They insisted that the continent’s creative output be regarded not as mere ethnographic material, but as art in its own right. That understanding of African art, based almost entirely on its formal qualities, is still current in much of the art world today. But modernist criteria don’t take into account the cultures that made these works, or how the people who used them assessed beauty and utility.
“The Language of Beauty in African Art,” opening April 3 at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, offers an insider’s perspective on traditional African art. The exhibition features some 220 objects—masks, sculptures, architectural elements, jewelry and more—from over 65 different peoples in West, Central and Southern Africa, most of it made in the 19th and 20th centuries. The aim is to understand these works in the context of their own cultures, exploring the customs and beliefs that the works were—and among some groups still are—created to sustain.
“There’s meaning and purpose to it,” said Jennifer Casler Price, curator of Asian, African and Ancient American art at the Kimbell. “This art is a component of everyday life in Africa.” Drawing on research by African and Western scholars since the 1930s, the show examines the words that African peoples use to describe beauty, ugliness and other aesthetic concepts, finding that in many cultures “appearance is insufficient to assess the beauty or ugliness of an object,” said Constantine Petridis, the exhibition’s organizer and a curator the Art Institute of Chicago, where the show will open in November. “Beauty pertains to meaning—to content.”
A Baule statue of a female figure from Ivory Coast.
Photo: National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC
In many African languages there’s a basic connection between beauty and morality, often expressed in a single word signifying both “beautiful” and “good” and another meaning “ugly” and “immoral.” It’s a judgment that applies to people as well as art, said Mr. Petridis. For the Baule people of Ivory Coast in West Africa, for instance, a statue is considered beautiful if it resembles an idealized member of the village: clean, healthy, hardworking and fecund. In a sculpted figure, that translates into a smooth, glossy surface, attractive hairstyle, long, strong neck, muscular calves and a youthful appearance. “All these signs,” said Mr. Petridis, indicate good character and—since complex hairstyles usually require assistance—“a good nature that allows a person to be helped and supported by other people.”
In addition, “art serves as a mediator” between the worlds of the living and the dead, Mr. Petridis said, encouraging “the other world to intervene in a positive way.” Most Baule figures are made to appease spirits who, by “sitting” on a sculpture, become available for human interaction. “And for them to want to sit on the sculpture,” said Ms. Price, “it needs to be beautiful.”
Other standards of beauty in African art include clarity, moderation and balance. Among the Bamana of Mali, clarity or jeya is evident in ciwara, the antelope headdresses worn in traditional performances. With their sharply rendered lines and shapes, ciwara are instantly recognizable, even in motion. In creating them, Bamana artists are expected to strip away superfluous details, using abstraction to reveal the essence of the antelope, which is further communicated through dance. The examples on view attest to the breadth of creative expression that these works can encompass while remaining clearly recognizable as ciwara.
For the Fang peoples of Central Africa, bibwe or balance is a key principle, especially in terms of male and female energy. In the Fang worldview, activity and determination are male, while tranquility and deliberation are female. Both are admired but must be balanced to avoid extremes, a dynamic that applies to sculpted figures. Whether depicting a female figure or a male, Fang sculptures feature muscular arms and torso counterbalanced by a face expressing composure and deliberation. This equilibrium of complementary opposites gives rise to the culture’s ultimate aesthetic ideal of ening, vitality.
The exhibition’s final sections move beyond beauty to consider its opposite, ugliness, and the combination of the two that Mr. Petridis terms “awesome art.” Among the Kongo and Songye peoples of Central Africa, large power figures known as minkisi or mankishi mediate between the living and the dead, activated by medicinal and magical ingredients placed in cavities in the figures’ heads or bodies. “They’re both fearsome and terrifying, and admirable and compelling,” Mr. Petridis said. “Neither beautiful nor ugly but the two combined in one.”
“There’s a reason why we express beauty and ugliness, and why we appreciate it,” he continued. “We as human beings are an aesthetic species.” In the traditional arts of Africa, that impulse to create is inseparable from life itself.
Copyright ©2022 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Appeared in the March 19, 2022, Wall Street Journal print edition as ‘The Language Of African Art.’ https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-language-of-african-art-11647631403