Punctum (English translation)

A few years ago a psychiatrist friend told me an anecdote that impressed and amused me. In front of a patient, with suicidal tendencies but with valuable intellectual capacities, he said these words : “Why you don’t investigate about the definition of “beauty” … you should dedicate time getting deeper into this concept. Who knows ! We might get to a common  definition”

Fortunately, that intelligent man is fine and still alive.

I am joking of course, but there is always some truth in every joke.

In this work, therefore, I will avoid bothering myself trying to distinguish the good from the bad, or trying to explain the meaning of all this ; I will just express my personal opinion, not pretending to be an authority in this topic ; the beauty is what stimulates my desire of knowledge, understanding, and even of possession when possible, why not, as long as we are talking about collecting.  

For this reason, in my opinion the way of feeling beauty is fundamental, and beauty can be hidden in the Sonata in B flat, D. 960 by Franz Schubert , which I’m currently listening to, as I am writing, i.e. the way you look at an artistic artifact, a Yombe motherhood for example, as this one.


Yombe / Kongo, Congo, Mvwala staff, cm.30, Private Collection, Italy


Why does this ancient sculpture of Congo question me ? What stimulates my desire for knowledge, understanding … what leads me to a spontaneous involvement, to a genuine admiration ?

I have just written about the way of looking. Well, what is this modality ?

A great philosopher and semiotician known as Roland Barthes can give me a hand. What I learned from him is how to look, how to see ; though as we know, his teachings specifically refer to the vision of a photographic image

  Especially in one of his works, La chambre claire (1980), Barthes suggests that there are two ways the spectator enjoys the image: the rational (studium) and the emotional (punctum).

The punctum is exactly what draws my attention, i.e. the detail that emotionally affects and irrationally involves the viewer. “Irrationally” actually means that the viewer cannot express any resistance or justification.  Srdjan Srmac: punctum is something that ‘pierces’ and ‘wounds’ the observer, suffering the spectator “sharply, deeply, instantaneously”. Barthes claimed that “it is this element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me.”

Well, in that motherhood, the relevant punctum to my eye is the absence of eyes, which against any presumed evidence, conversely bring out an intense emotional depth.


But which eyes am I referring to if the eyes have not even been sculpted ? And why haven’t they been carved ?

We’ll never know, but nothing prevents me from expressing my interpretation, which is in fact inherent to the value of beauty!

The eyes are inexistent because the mother does not need to look; her eyes are deep within, not towards to the world, but to its role as a woman who cares and perpetuates life. She does not need to look because she already sees what is needed to be seen and, what you need to see, is not outside, but inside, in the ancestral meaning of nursing.

“It was called phemba, a word that L. Bittremieux thought to be derived from kivemba, meaning to broadcast or eject, as in the seeds of potential children which accumulate in either a man or a woman. Thus, rather than representing a particular woman and child, or even a concept as specific as motherhood, the Yombe image of a nurturing woman may express the more general idea of fertility and creativity as it applies to all people, male as well as female” (A. Maesen, 1960).

The silence that emanates from those “eyes non-eyes” is not the representation of a collective identity, or of a role attributed regardless the individual identity because unlike a Western mother, that Yombe figure is not a mother, but “the mother” namely the impersonal representation of the continuity of existence.

   I have analyzed and interpreted this, but the discussion still applies in general.

And in fact the eventual presence of a punctum that enables me to distinguish a work of art worthy of beauty and interest, from any other form of expression.

And in fact it is the identification of that trait which enlightens my desire and questions my passion; without that, every vision seems cold and without any particular significance.

And it is not the noble origins, international exhibitions or publications that make me love this article: on the contrary, in many of African articles I have found a very strong emotional involvement, although they were unknown objects, with no pedigree on the surface, but strongly characterized, however, by that mysterious punctum!

In the words of Giorgio Agamben, the punctum is precisely unknowable knowledge, which however is revealed in symbols and signifiers.

In a previous work, emotion and reasoning, (https://artidellemaninere.com/2014/12/30/emozione-e-ragionamento/), I felt not to overestimate the emotional aspect because the tribal art is, above all, a language that must be understood and respected.

   Tribal art has its own secret language, which is as worth as its undeniable external beauty ; for this reason working on tribal art as an artistic expression of a deep language, unsolved (mysterious) and poetic, hieratic and symbolic, means that we should give back these articles their rightful due in terms of dignity, beyond any sickly/boring kind of stupefaction.

That latter, of course, is foolish/absurd and ungrateful.

I wrote this, forgive me for the self-quotation!

But all this, it is clear, is not the antithesis of the modality of looking / seeing as I mentioned above; instead, it completes and integrates the imperious and violent relationship that goes from emotion to understanding and, enhances the artistic significance.

Moreover, it is Barthes who reminds us the importance of the Studium when the image requires emotional answers!

   Here, though, it is of my interest to reaffirm the characteristic of looking in front of a mask or a sculpture: the presence or absence of the punctum is essential.

Through this mode, you can grasp the beauty and this is palpable beauty that arouses an imperishable and greedy desire for knowledge … and sometimes ownership!

But as I wrote, this is my particular way of looking and questioning, my personal way of experiencing beauty.

Elio Revera



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