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Beautiful/Ugly: African and Diaspora Aesthetics

by Sara Nuttall, Editor
Duke University Press, Durham NC, 2007
Published in conjunction with the Prince Claus Fund
416 pp., illus. 126 b/w. Paper, $24.95 US, 17.99 pounds UK
ISBN: 0-8223-3918-2.

Reviewed by Michael R. (Mike) Mosher
Saginaw Valley State University


Sara Nutall has assembled authors who write on a variety of aspects of beauty and its absence, the urban distinctions between formal and informal, use and refuse (and, frequently, reuse) art and junk in the "sheer ugliness of the city", the recurrence or adaptation of traditional African motifs, and images and gazes still mired or originating in Western colonial standards of contemporary beauty. Toni Morrison's novel The Bluest Eye gives voice to the anguish of an African American woman who is outside of her part of the US' prevailing European standards of beauty. Sara Nuttall cites this character in the introduction to her anthology Beautiful/Ugly: African and Diaspora Aesthetics. She goes on to mention the privileged signares, the mulatto women of Gorée Island when it was a major slave-trading port. These Senegalese women have been the subject of glass paintings by Germaine Gaye, which in turn have been copied in miniature by street vendors in Dakar and on Gorée.

Some contributors to Beautiful/Ugly, notice African beauty, like Mamari Maxine Clarke among the Oyotunji community in the Sea Islands of Carolina coast, whose residents endeavor to recreate the traditional west African community and lifestyle of their ancestors...though their kids want to listen to hip hop, as do many African kids. Other authors investigate wedding feasts and family cuisine, and Brazilian hair care products. Short fiction by Mia Couto of Mozambique contextualizes questions of what is acceptable display.

Some contributors view the African grotesque. Dominique Malaquais investigates local meanings attached to the bricolage aesthetic, embodied in a large sculptural metal figure constructed of scrap and junk by Joseph Francis Sumegne in Douala, Cameroon, called "La Nouvelle Liberté." Malaquais might have explored comparisons to California Funk sculptors like William Keinholz, or Osip Zadkine's figurative metal war memorial in Rotterdam. Michelle Gilbert delivers a well-illustrated report on the cool, scary painted ads for "morality" melodramas in Ghana, as over the top as the American painter Robert Williams, or the "Mars Attacks" bubblegum cards this reviewer relished as a boy in the 1960s. When Senegalese sculptor Ousmane Sow saw Leni Reifenstahl's photographs of elegant Nuba people, he was inspired to create works depicting massive male African wrestlers. Having witnessed the January, 2007 wrestling-with-punches match in Dakar's Leopold Senghor Stadium between heavyweights Bombadier and Tyson (his career and erratic behavior modeled after the American boxer of that name), this reviewer affirms the realism of Sow's work. Those guys are monumental.

Simon Gikandi writes on Picasso, an apologetic for Picasso's offhand comment to an Afro-Guyanese artist Aubrey Williams where the Spaniard viewed the man's physiognomy——"a fine African head"——as a potential subject for his own work. Yet, if the comment brusquely objectified a fellow artist, why would we expect Picasso treat any out-of-town stranger better than he did his own Spanish, Russian and French women? According to André Malraux, whom Gikandi quotes, Picasso was irritated at "the influences that the Negroes had on me." Robert Farris Thompson is quoted in wondering why we don't hear African artists' reactions to Picasso. John Berger, in The Success and Failure of Picasso, predicted that Picasso's greatness would lie in his unintentional encouragement of African artists to reclaim their traditional aesthetics and to minimize their imitation of trends in the cultural, colonial European and American art capitals.

Sarah Nuttall is Associate Professor of Literary and Cultural Studies at the University of the Witswatersrand in Johannesburg, and several essayists are from South Africa. Artist William Kentridge questions the very idea of beauty when drawing a corpse on an urban street or the ravaged landscape of mine dumps around Germiston. Mark Gevisser looks at an early-1960s scrapbook with images of black families enjoying the day at a fine beach (not the ragged ones they were assigned under South African racial laws), and an interracial couple holding hands in public, and affectionate gay men, and pines for the ensuing three decades to have been ones of normal human relations, had they taken place without apartheid's cruel and stringent rules.

Beautiful/Ugly is another fine book on contemporary African art from Duke University Press, to place on the shelf beside Elizabeth Harney's In Senghor's Shadow.



Updated 1st June 2007

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