How has African art been evaluated and valued—and by whom?
That is the question guiding this presentation of more than 250 sculptures from dozens of distinct cultures across the African continent. It is an exploration that seeks to decolonize the Western aesthetic standards long placed on these objects and to elevate the local indigenous perspectives of the works’ makers and communities.
When Westerners began to collect and study African art in the early 20th century, they admired objects for a range of perceived qualities; however, they rarely if ever took into account any form of local appreciation, value, or criticism. Western scholarship consequently made many assumptions—some correct and some not—about how visual aspects, like size, rare materials, and embellishments, translated into value in the source cultures.
The Language of Beauty—while acknowledging this narrow historical assessment of African art—focuses instead on showcasing the aesthetic evaluations of the communities and makers who produced the works. Many sub-Saharan cultures share similar criteria for beauty: symmetry and balance, moderation, clarity, and youthfulness. Such determinations, however, go beyond the visual and overlap with an object’s meaning and function. Beauty is often tied to goodness and ugliness to immorality. These connections are especially apparent in sculptural representations of the human form, particularly idealized images of powerful men—usually equestrians or warriors—and caring women, typically shown as mother-and-child figures.
Beautiful art often plays a role in interactions between the material world of humans and the immaterial world of spirits. Individuals facing illness and other adversity, for example, may attempt to honor or entice the spirits with sculpted human figures featuring elaborate hairstyles or body modifications that are the result of human intervention.
Conversely, some art and objects require deliberate ugliness in order to mediate between physical and spiritual worlds. Komo masks of the Bamana in Mali, for instance, are covered with layers of crusty offerings and often feature sharp, pointed additions, all meant to express an aggressive and frightening character. And still other works, like the power figures of the Kongo and Songye in southern Democratic Republic of the Congo, combine beauty and ugliness in a way that renders them at once irresistibly attractive and profoundly repelling.
Whether beautiful, ugly, or something that defies these categories, The Language of Beauty in African Art celebrates these objects and the philosophical, social, political, and religious implications for the communities that incorporated, or still incorporate, them into ceremonial and ritual practices and everyday life. In sharing these perspectives, the exhibition also invites viewers to examine their own ideas about beauty and question the influences that impact how we assess and appreciate works of art.
The Language of Beauty in African Art is curated by Constantine Petridis, chair and curator of Arts of Africa at the Art Institute of Chicago. A fully illustrated catalogue accompanies the exhibition and features essays by Petridis as well as other top scholars in the field.