4 minute read

Aesthetics in Africa

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 life—from soccer to hairstyles to music and film—whereas 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.


Abiodun, Rowland, Henry John Drewal, and John Pemberton III. Yoruba: Art and Aesthetics. Edited by Lorenz Homberger. New York and Zurich: The Center for African Art and Rietberg Museum, 1991.

Barber, Karin, ed. Readings in African Popular Culture. Bloomington: International African Institute, in association with Indiana University Press, 1997.

Berlo, Janet Catherine, and Lee Anne Wilson, eds. Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas: Selected Readings. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1993.

Hallen, Barry. "Some Observations about Philosophy, Postmodernism, and Art in Contemporary African Studies." African Studies Review 38, no. 1 (April 1995): 69–80.

Mudimbe, V. Y. The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy, and the Order of Knowledge. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.

Nooter, Mary H. Secrecy: African Art that Conceals and Reveals. New York: The Museum for African Art, 1993.

Oguibe, Olu, and Okwui Enwezor, eds. Reading the Contemporary: African Art from Theory to Marketplace. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999.

Phillips, Ruth B., and Christopher B. Steiner, eds. Unpacking Culture: Art and Commodity in Colonial and Postcolonial Worlds. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

Roberts, Mary Nooter, and Allen F. Roberts. A Sense of Wonder: African Art from the Faletti Family Collection. Phoenix, Ariz.: Phoenix Art Museum, 1997.

Rubin, Arnold. African Accumulative Sculpture: Power and Display. New York: Pace Gallery, 1974.

Thompson, Robert Farris. African Art in Motion: Icon and Act in the Collection of Katherine Coryton White. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1974.

Viredu, K. "On Defining African Philosophy." In Postkoloniales Philosophieren: Afrika, edited by N. Nagl-Docekal and F. M. Wimmer, 40–62. Vienna and Munich: R. Oldenbourg Verlag.

Vogel, Susan Mullin. African Aesthetics: The Carlo Monzino Collection. Photographs by Mario Carrieri. New York: Center for African Art, 1986.

Yai, Olabiyi Babalola. "In Praise of Metonymy: The Concepts of 'Tradition' and 'Creativity' in the Transmission of Yoruba Artistry over Time and Space." In The Yoruba Artist: New Theoretical Perspectives on African Arts, edited by Rowland Abiodun, Henry J. Drewal, and John Pemberton III. Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994.

Mary Nooter Roberts

Additional topics

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