1 minute read

Aesthetics in Africa

Cross-cultural Thematics

Through ashe, Yoruba arts are highly efficacious—that 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.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Adrenoceptor (adrenoreceptor; adrenergic receptor) to AmbientAesthetics in Africa - Aesthetic Discourse, Cross-cultural Thematics, Aesthetics On The Move, Bibliography