Standards of Beauty (and Ugliness) in African Art

African art has a unique quality and aesthetic that makes every piece a valuable addition to any collection. African figurines, for example, can serve as captivating decorations that imbue a space with distinctive character. However, people’s perspectives on these works of art can vary due to differing standards of beauty, influenced by their cultural background. For those open to appreciating art beyond their own norms, it’s helpful to understand what beauty and ugliness mean in the context of African art.


The role of religion and spirituality


African art is not solely an expression of an artist’s creativity; it serves functional and spiritual purposes deeply ingrained in the community’s well-being and survival. For instance, many works are believed to protect the community by guarding ancestral remains or warding off harmful spirits.


Art pieces that focus on male beauty serve another layer of function: they symbolize religious or political authority. Consequently, these are commonly found on altars as talismans against both metaphysical and physical threats.


Concept of beauty from an African lens


Western concepts of beauty can differ significantly from those of Sub-Saharan communities. African art often portrays masculinity through African figurines featuring muscular, youthful bodies with large hands and feet. These physical traits are associated with fieldwork, hunting, and carrying heavy burdens, while youthfulness is linked to good health and fertility.


Feminine beauty in African art is often characterized by voluptuous figures with rounded hips, a large belly, and ample buttocks. These features symbolize maternal strength and fertility. Female figures also usually come adorned with elaborate jewelry and intricate hairstyles, markers of beauty and high social status in many African societies.


Scarification and the pursuit of smooth skin


Scarification is a common practice among many African cultures, involving the creation of patterns or designs on the skin through cutting or branding. Especially for women, facial scarification is considered an enhancement of beauty.


Smooth skin is another widely accepted standard of beauty in African art and cultures. Therefore, African figurines and sculptures are often polished to a glossy finish using stones or leaves. This smooth surface is not just a sign of physical beauty but also a metaphor for harmonious social relations. Conversely, rough and coarse textures are generally considered unattractive.


The notion of ugliness in African art


In the context of African art, ugliness is often linked to natural elements like animals and wilderness, whereas beauty is associated with human society, including communities and villages. Figurines are sometimes crafted to attract spirits, preventing them from causing illness or misfortune. These art pieces serve as vessels for these spirits, who are then appeased through offerings.


Ugliness in African art isn’t always negative; it can also evoke powerful emotions like fear and awe, which in turn command authority and power. Some artworks intentionally combine elements of both beauty and ugliness to captivate and unsettle the viewer. Besides that, beauty and ugliness are subjective and in the eye of the beholder and informed by the beholder’s disposition.


Discover more about African tribal art.


Explore the intricate beauty of African figurines and other artisanal pieces from African Angel Art. Each artwork not only tells a story but also empowers the talented artisans who create them.




About the author:


African Angel Art offers paintings, sculptures, and prints. It is often created by artists who deeply connect to African art and spirituality. African Angel Arts is dedicated to fostering connections between various global cultures and dispelling misconceptions, boundaries, and anxieties related to race. Their core belief is that nurturing cultural interactions serves as the most effective means to foster relationships across social, economic, and political gaps. Their aim is to portray the magnificence and importance of these celestial entities in a manner that harmonizes with the rich cultural legacy of the continent.

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