Aesthetics in Africa
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).
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