The Language of Beauty in African Art

The Language of Beauty in African Art

14 Ubi Face Mask Press
14 Ubi Face Mask Press

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Nov 20, 2021–Feb 27. 2023


How has African artwork been evaluated and valued—and by whom?

That is the problem guiding this presentation of far more than 250 sculptures from dozens of distinct cultures throughout the African continent. It is an exploration that seeks to decolonize the Western aesthetic expectations extensive put on these objects and to elevate the nearby indigenous perspectives of the works’ makers and communities. 

Pair of Headdresses (Ciwara Kunw), mid-19th to early 20th century. Bamana Baninko area, Mali

The Art Institute of Chicago, Ada Turnbull Hertle Endowment

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When Westerners began to accumulate and review African artwork in the early 20th century, they admired objects for a selection of perceived attributes however, they seldom if at any time took into account any form of community appreciation, price, or criticism. Western scholarship therefore designed many assumptions—some proper and some not—about how visible aspects, like measurement, exceptional products, and embellishments, translated into benefit in the supply cultures.

The Language of Magnificence—while acknowledging this narrow historical assessment of African art—focuses as an alternative on showcasing the aesthetic evaluations of the communities and makers who produced the functions. Numerous sub-Saharan cultures share related criteria for splendor: symmetry and equilibrium, moderation, clarity, and youthfulness. This sort of determinations, nevertheless, go over and above the visual and overlap with an object’s indicating and function. Beauty is often tied to goodness and ugliness to immorality. These connections are in particular clear in sculptural representations of the human kind, especially idealized images of potent men—usually equestrians or warriors—and caring women, usually shown as mom-and-little one figures.

Beautiful art often plays a role in interactions involving the substance world of humans and the immaterial environment of spirits. Persons facing disease and other adversity, for case in point, may endeavor to honor or entice the spirits with sculpted human figures showcasing elaborate hairstyles or overall body modifications that are the final result of human intervention.

Conversely, some art and objects demand deliberate ugliness in buy to mediate in between physical and religious worlds. Komo masks of the Bamana in Mali, for instance, are covered with levels of crusty choices and usually characteristic sharp, pointed additions, all meant to specific an intense and horrifying character. And nonetheless other functions, like the ability figures of the Kongo and Songye in southern Democratic Republic of the Congo, merge splendor and ugliness in a way that renders them at after irresistibly attractive and profoundly repelling.

Facial area Mask, 20th century. In all probability Ubi Côte d’Ivoire

Non-public assortment, Belgium. Photo by Hughes Dubois

No matter if gorgeous, unappealing, or something that defies these classes, The Language of Splendor in African Artwork celebrates these objects and the philosophical, social, political, and spiritual implications for the communities that integrated, or still include, them into ceremonial and ritual procedures and day to day life. In sharing these unfamiliar views, the exhibition also invites viewers to analyze their individual strategies about splendor and dilemma the influences that influence how we assess and take pleasure in will work of art.


Big funding for The Language of Elegance in African Artwork is presented by Lilly Endowment Inc., Myrna Kaplan, Gary Metzner and Scott Johnson, Javier Peres and Benoît Wolfrom, and an anonymous donor.

This project is supported in portion by the Nationwide Endowment for the Arts.

Customers of the Luminary Have faith in give once-a-year management help for the museum’s operations, such as exhibition improvement, conservation and collection care, and academic programming. The Luminary Have faith in involves an nameless donor, Neil Bluhm and the Bluhm Family Charitable Foundation, Karen Grey-Krehbiel and John Krehbiel, Jr., Kenneth C. Griffin, the Harris Spouse and children Basis in memory of Bette and Neison Harris, Josef and Margot Lakonishok, Robert M. and Diane v.S. Levy, Ann and Samuel M. Mencoff, Sylvia Neil and Dan Fischel, Anne and Chris Reyes, Cari and Michael J. Sacks, and the Earl and Brenda Shapiro Basis.