African Attitudes toward Art Objects: the BaLega

George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University

Although Willet points out that European and Yoruba observers tend to agree on the relative aesthetic success or value of individual Yoruba works, he cautions against assuming that such would be the case with all subsaharan arts, or even that a unifying pan-African aesthetic exists at all. As an example, he cites the BaLega attitude toward sculptures used in Bwami society rituals.

[Items are] judged to be "good" by which was meant that they fulfilled their functions. "Criticism of the physical appearance . . . is inconceivable" [Bieybuyck, 17]. As a result, celluloid dolls obtained by trade enjoy equal regard with the traditional sculptures in ivory and wood. . . . The possession of large numbers of the traditional objects reflected great prestige for the owner, for in order to acquire them he must have taken part in a great many rituals and have served as head of the funerary ceremonies of other high-grade members, since they are acquired chiefly by inheritance. It is this very fact, however, which explains the acceptance of the foreign artefact, for the numbers alone are what matters, the quality and age of the pieces are of no importance. [African Art, Thames and Hudson]

Can one locate such functionalist aesthetics (or non-aesthetics) in literature written during colonial and postcolonial eras?

Postcolonial Web [Africa] Nigeria OV Visual Arts