By Will Rea
Beautiful Ugly: African and Diaspora Aesthetics. Ed. Sarah Nuttall, Duke University Press in conjunction with the Prince Claus Fund, Durham and London, 2006. Pp 416, 126 illustrations £ 17.99
This is a beautiful book – that is, the production values given to the publication by Duke University Press and no doubt supported by the Prince Claus Fund are wonderful, beautiful even. The essays are supported by the kind of colour reproduction that it is rare to find even in the museum catalogues of blockbuster exhibitions. The essays are even colour highlighted, and there is an over all feel to the book of sumptuous quality. This is a book destined for bookshops that exist as the essential adjunct of the modern art gallery. As such it is no doubt going to picked up and read by a metropolitan art elite of the type well versed in ‘post modern / postcolonial / deconstructive / discourse analysis’; the question though is whether the book doesn’t simply add more exotica for the art hungry savages of the west desperately seeking Africa?
Beautiful Ugly is both a timely book and a book of its time. It is an irritating book as well as one that contains some surprises and some genuine importance. Beautiful Ugly indeed. In general it is a book that purports to explore the idea of beauty and/or ugliness and/or the sublime within African discourses of the aesthetic or perhaps, more broadly, taste. It is however, firmly orientated toward investigating the expression of that beauty /taste within the (what is becoming something of a cliché) contemporary African and African diaspora situation. Through these essays, some of which have been previously published, but most seemingly written for this volume, the authors track something that might be called beauty or be called the aesthetic through a series of different situations, idioms and places that all in some way relate to Africa.
Immediately the title starts flagging up the habitual warning signs that accompany any discussion of ‘African’ aesthetics. One does not have to have read Barry Hallen’s (1979) critique of Robert Farris Thompson’s categories of Yoruba aesthetics to realise that this is fraught and dangerous territory, intertwined in the politics of identity and the relationships that inhere between categories of taste and judgement found in the West and those found in African societies. Here is one of the irritating things. There is a long and complicated history of thought behind the idea of the aesthetic as it appears as a philosophical concept in African societies but this book makes little reference to these debates. Rather it firmly sets out in search of an aesthetic within the contemporary African situation. So, despite Gikandi’s and Mbembe’s opening pieces, I am not sure upon what philosophical grounds the book is standing. Maybe this is an unjustified criticism, perhaps the book doesn’t pretend to a ‘philosophy’, it is after all an art book and perhaps its intention is no more than to be illustrative of a diverse set of practices loosely organised around the theme of beauty / ugliness within some undefined contemporary historical period. The problem with this is that then the book potentially becomes no more than a type of modernist connoisseurship, collecting cultures where they conjoin to art. And this book clearly attends to more than this. Yet placing together a set of disparate, albeit desperately elegant papers, under the rubric of (an) African beauty (however that is figured) gives the impression of a metaphysical object that is universally applicable. We are back with Picasso and his sense of a universal African emotionalism (something well critiqued by Gikandi in the first essay of the book but something unfortunately other authors here seem incapable of avoiding). More than this, I suspect that what is really being discussed in many of the papers here is neither beauty nor ugliness, the sublime or the grotesque, but something that might be more recognisable as style.
What is good about this book is that it brings together some very interesting papers around the issue of art and politics and it clearly underlines Enwezor’s (2000) statement that some time ago contemporary art in Africa became imprisoned in theories of history, materiality and ethnicity. And that “What has been lost is a consideration of the form of the aesthetic that made up /makes up the experience of art within the post colony”. This book carries within it where it deals with the local situations a clear understanding of the need to engage with the forms of contemporary aesthetic production as they develop within histories and ethnicities, but which are not subordinate to either. For this, and for Nuttal’s very clear introduction of the terms of the artistic debate about aesthetics (although, as I say, not the philosophical one), the book is a valuable resource, and one that if read carefully certainly enhances ways of thinking through some African relations to beauty in the world – savages notwithstanding.
[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 69 (2007), pp. 82-83]