Art and Aesthetics in Action
Written by: Professor Severyn T. Bruyn


African Priestess

Clyde Taylor looks at an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in 1996 on “Africa, Art of a Continent” and sharply poses a problem that developed in modernity. The dilemma is in our “categories of knowledge,” which do not fit the art that we often experience:

The powerful objects in this exhibition simply do not fit into the paradigm created in the West to house “art.” Only about 2 percent of the objects in this mammoth exhibition fulfill Maqquet’s criterion for world art, namely non-functional ornamentation. But these objects are too grand, magnificent, highly structured, and individualized to rest comfortably in other categories of Western knowledge, like “Natural History,” or “Primitive Art.” The truth is, they were usually constructed to serve some higher significance than what the West has singled out since the humanist revolution as art.

Taylor is concerned about how museum curators could interpret works of art outside their native settings. Let us look at one example on the Internet. A number of museum exhibitions on African art can now be found there, such as an exhibition and a discussion of aesthetics at the Bayly Art Museum, University of Virginia.

Let me summarize what is said about African masks in one case.

One mask in this Bayly exhibition is from Sierre Leone and Liberia. It is worn over the head of a female elder who the museum says dances for the Sande women’s society. The Museum describes how the mask “displays and celebrates Mende ideals of female beauty and virtue: elaborately braided hair (cosmetic skills, sexuality); neck creases (full-bodied, good health); smooth, broad forehead (nobility, intelligence); lowered eyes (contemplativeness, restraint); well shaped ears; small nose; small mouth (not given to gossip); composed expression (inner serenity), smooth skin (youthfulness). The curators point out that all these features are exaggerated in the mask, “its three thick rows of braided hair, large neck folds, wide forehead, diminutive nose and mouth, and polished surface. A bird figure is perched on top of the coiffure, which has many meanings: clairvoyance, love, fertility, power, danger, discipline, prudence, and laughter. The mask’s shining blackness connotes the essence of female beauty and moral purity.” 

In light of Taylor’s thoughtful critique, visitors at this museum should look carefully at these professional interpretations. While we respect the expertise of curators, the interpretation above is not final. Students who are serious would seek meaning that resides in original artists. While artists do not by themselves define the whole purpose and value of their work for others, we would ask, How did this work spring from the native culture? How did people explain what they were doing in their native language?

African Priestess
African Priestess

I created this figure out of some clay that I bought locally. I tried to copy the bust of an African woman shaped in stone that was a gift from our daughter. This bust actually has no name, but I named it “African Priestess” for what it seemed to me when I finished it.

This is a renegade figure that simply appeals to me and fits no easy category.

African Priestess

Black Tom Jefferson

The Owner of a Hacienda

Native American Pipe

Buddha in the Country

The Buddha in the Wood [detail]

Aristophanes and Euripides