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Three objects float against a white background. On the left is a multi-colored beaded stool, the supporting form of which is shaped like a cat. In the center is a red-colored mask of a woman with her eyes closed, facial decoration, bugle-shaped earrings, and a full head of short dark hair. On the right is an abstracted wooden figure with wide eyes and a long neck. Fig 1 255891 Cat 219

African Beauty through African Eyes

Exhibition Preview


The Chokwe people of present-day Angola praise figures and masks that combine “beauty” and “goodness” with a single word: cibema.

They use another word, utotombo, to identify an artwork executed with superior skill and care. Both cibema and utotombo come together in this 19th-century wooden sculpture of the local Chokwe hero Chibinda Ilunga.

A nude male figure carved out of a dark wood is seen in 3/4 view. He stands with knees slightly bent holding a staff in one hand and a horn in the other. He has an elaborate headdress or hairstyle and beard made out of fiber.

Male Figure Identified as Chibinda Ilunga, 19th century

Chokwe; Angola. Wood, pigment, and fiber. Height 40.6 cm (19 in.). Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, TX, purchase by the Kimbell Art Foundation, 1978, AP 1978.05. Photo by Michael Bodycomb

Meticulously carved, this figure would have been part of an altar and have served to fight off physical as well as metaphysical threats. Its muscular body, flexed arms and legs, and large hands and feet convey its dynamic energy and reflect the endurance and masculine power needed during a hunting expedition.

This work is one of several Chokwe pieces that welcome visitors to the upcoming exhibition The Language of Beauty in African Art. While the sculptural arts of the Chokwe people have long been renowned for their refinement and naturalism by Western collectors and scholars, this exhibition highlights the aesthetics of these Chokwe works, and hundreds of other objects from across West and Central Africa, through the eyes of the makers, patrons, and users of the originating cultures. The presentation considers not only the aesthetic criteria that the indigenous cultures value but also how their aesthetic judgments go hand in hand with the objects’ functions and meanings as part of daily and ritual life.

The Standards and Meanings of Beauty

Cultures across the sub-Saharan region share many of the same standards for what they consider beautiful: clarity achieved through stylization, abstraction, and reduction; youthfulness or the representation of the body in the prime of life; moderation (or the avoidance of exaggeration); and balance and symmetry. The Bamana would praise the clarity, or what they call jeya, of a sogoni kun headdress. And the Fang would discern how the symmetry of a male eyema byeri figure epitomizes the balance, or bibwe, they consider the visual hallmark of their aesthetic of beauty.

As with the Chokwe concept of cibema, the idea that moral and formal beauty are fused is common in many sub-Saharan cultures. The Bamana call it nyuman, and the Fang use the word mbung. One way many peoples south of the Sahara enhance visual beauty and highlight exceptional conduct is through the use of adornments and jewelry, worn by both men and women. Idealized sculptural renderings of each gender—men as powerful and women as nurturing—also embody this concept of beauty and goodness in one.

Beauty also supports the interactions between humans and spirits. Among the Baule, ideals of visual and moral excellence, called klanman, are embodied by female figures rendered with complicated hairstyles and elaborate body scarifications. Such figures are meant to entice an afflicting spirit to come and intervene in human affairs and resolve conflict.

A nude female figure carved out of a dark wood is seen in 3/4 view. She stands with knees slightly bent and her hands low on on either side of her rounded stomach. Raised scarification marks dot her cheeks and torso. She wears beaded jewelry around her neck, hips, and ankles.

Female Figure, 19th century

Baule; Côte d’Ivoire. Wood, pigment, glass beads, gold beads, fiber, and sacrificial materials. H. 48.9 cm (19 1⁄4 in.). National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, museum purchase, 85-15-2. Photo by Frank Khoury

Local Concepts of Ugliness

The exhibition also delves into expressions of ugliness that, like their beautiful counterparts, are deliberate and reflect the widely shared belief that dark, coarse, and asymmetrical forms correspond with bad character, improper conduct, malignant magic, and death. Masks and figures that are considered ugly in the originating cultures often include visual and material references to the unpredictable wilderness and the animal world.

A mask with a long open jaw bearing large pointed teeth is seen in a profile view. The head is covered with multiple horns of various lengths and a crusty, uneven outer layer.

Helmet Mask (possibly Komo Kun), 19th–early 20th century

Senufo: probably Tyedumbele; Côte d’Ivoire or Mali. Wood, pigment, antelope horns, ivory, and cowrie shells. L. 97 cm (38 1/7 in.). Collection of Laura and John Arnold, Houston. Photo courtesy of Sotheby’s

Members of the religious association that is responsible for this helmet mask consider it to be a terrifying and intimidating sculpture. Layers of sacrificial blood and other offerings create the characteristic crusty surface, enhancing its visual ugliness as well as its inherent energy, or nyama.

However, in some cultures the ugly and the beautiful are brought together in pairings of male and female masks that ultimately celebrate their complementarity. Among the Igbo, the dark, fearsome, and aggressive mgbedike helmet mask genre, expressing the local concept of ugliness, ojo, would pair with the white, gentle, and sensitive face mask of the agbogho mmuo type, embodying mma, the Igbo ideal of beauty.

Awesome Art

In addition to objects that are considered beautiful and those that are conceived to be ugly, there is a distinct aesthetic category that transcends this dichotomy. The large so-called power figures of the minkisi and mankishi types of the Kongo and Songye peoples are examples of objects intended to both fascinate and terrify.

Thanks to the insertion of medicinal and magical concoctions in cavities in their abdomen and head, these objects mediate between the living and the dead. Comprising an imposing, meticulously carved support in human form, which is elaborately dressed and accessorized with leadership paraphernalia and accoutrements that add to its visual impact, such power figures merge aesthetic features that are at once irresistibly compelling and profoundly repulsive. They thus create an entity that is both attractive and terrifying, an aesthetic experience which the Kongo refer to as ngitukulu, evoking astonishment and awe.

One of the key messages of The Language of Beauty in African Art is that there are indeed complex aesthetic theories that inform the richly varied arts of Africa. The exhibition and its accompanying catalogue demonstrate how the local perception of beauty (and ugliness) typically extends beyond visual appearance and has an important moral connotation. The project also foregrounds that many cultures south of the Sahara employed, and often still employ, complex vocabularies to express their aesthetic preferences and to evaluate their arts. In the communities where they originated and flourished, the artists and patrons indeed had a “language of beauty” to praise the arts they created and used.

—Constantine Petridis, chair and curator, Arts of Africa

The Language of Beauty in African Art opens with previews for members on November 18 and 19, 2022.

Image at top (from left to right): Prestige Stool (Kuo), possibly 19th century. Bamileke; Bandjoun Kingdom, Cameroon. Height 51 cm (20 1/16 in.). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Severance and Greta Millikin Purchase Fund, 2006.138; Female Face Mask (Kambanda), 20th century. Eastern Pende; Democratic Republic of the Congo. Height 32 cm (12 ⅝ in.). Museum Rietberg, Zurich, gift of Barbara and Eberhard Fischer, HH 21a. Photo by Rainer Wolfsberger; Reliquary Guardian Figure (Mbulu Ngulu), 19th century. Kota: Sango; Gabon. Height 29 cm (11 7/16 in.). Collection of Jan Calmeyn, Sint-Niklaas, Belgium. Photo by Frédéric Dehaen, courtesy of Studio R. Asselberghs.


Major funding for The Language of Beauty in African Art is provided by Lilly Endowment Inc., Myrna Kaplan, Gary Metzner and Scott Johnson, Javier Peres and Benoît Wolfrom, and an anonymous donor.

Additional support is contributed by Lori and Steve Kaufman and the Loraine Kaufman Foundation and the Morton International Exhibition Fund.

This project is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Members of the Luminary Trust provide annual leadership support for the museum’s operations, including exhibition development, conservation and collection care, and educational programming. The Luminary Trust includes an anonymous donor, Karen Gray-Krehbiel and John Krehbiel, Jr., Kenneth C. Griffin, the Harris Family Foundation 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, Cari and Michael J. Sacks, and the Earl and Brenda Shapiro Foundation.

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