Were African primordial cultures aware of a concept such as beauty?

Translated, revised and edited by Ilaria Pol Bodetto


Also from the collection is the following photograph by Ulli Beier, from his Yoruba Children series.

Also from the collection is the following photograph by Ulli Beier, from his Yoruba Children series


And, consequently, what place did Art occupy in said cultures?

Certainly a similar notion, if we accept Western conventional definition, was unknown. However, if, by art, we mean “a visual object or experience consciously created through an expression of skill or imagination” (Encyclopaedia Britannica) therefore we can affirm, without fear of being misleading, that such a concept certainly existed.

But let’s take a closer look.

The immanence of beauty, expressed differently by every cultural expression in every age, is not a peculiarity of those cultures which have been labeled as “evolved” by outdated Western interpretative criteria. Beauty involves, instead, the whole history of humanity.



Altamira, Spain


Is it really possible to imagine that someone, among the hunter/gatherer population of Altamira which lived in Spain 15.000 years ago, suddenly decided to decorate the famous cave with rock paintings? And that such an action was the product of ordinary individuals, just like that, as a way to pass the time?

That magnificence was, indeed, the work of individuals intuitively attracted to beauty, and endowed with the necessary abilities to translate their creative genius into a painting.

Same thing can be said with regard to the carved rocks which bear witness to the life of the ancient Camuni people, who occupied the Italian Val Camonica (Cividate Camuno, Brescia) during the Paleolithic era – 8000 years before the birth of Christ. The rocks are characterised by animal figures, most of them representing stags, carved with rudimentary tools made of siliceous rock.




What’s left of those ancient populations is just their artistic heritage. As for African cultures, on the contrary, their oral tradition is still alive and constitutes a decisive factor in asserting the presence of a concept of beauty in art.

In the words of Raoul Lehuard: “Pour la région qui nous concerne le plus directement, le Bas-Zaïre, les populations Bakongo possèdent un mot qui désigne à la fois celui qui crée avec telent, ingéniosité et dextérité; celui qui exerce son métier  avec génie. Il s’agit de Mbangu, et ses dérivés Ambangu, Umbangu. Ce vocable désigne également la rectitude d’une chose qui ne serai rien sans cette rectitude: une poutre faîtière, par exemple, un alignement, l’assise d’un bâtiment, la tradition”. (AAN, n.74, 1990).


And Albert Maesen, in turn: “Dans certains dialectes Kongo, le mot Umbangu désigne à la fois le génie créateur et le fait de s’insérer dans une ligne tracée qui n’est autre que la tradition ancestrale” (Umbangu, Bruxelles, 1960).


At the same time, Marie-Louise Bastin, in relation to the Chokwe people of Angola, tells us that the word Utotombo is used to indicate a well done and functional object, made with great skills and love (L’Art d’Afrique Noire dans les collections privées belges, Bruxelles 1988).



These three written evidences are enough to wipe out any stereotype concerning classical African art, like those which refer to the casualty of beauty, to unpremeditation, to the production of objects without a draft or a concept to support their material creation – and several other amenities.


What stated above, however, does not imply that the Western world has stopped mystifying African art – as suggested by Peter Mark in an articulate paper Est-ce que l’art africain existe? ( Revue française d’histoire d’outre mer, tome 85, n.318, 1998).
 “Il ne s’agit pas moins que de recréer la discipline de l’histoire de l’art africain”, he writes. “Il faudrait d’abord éviter la mystification du sujet. Et il faudrait situer les objets étudiés dans leur contexte historique. Comme l’a écrit l’historien Mamadou Dawara, “abandonner le primat de l’esthétique et travailler plus sur des aspects historiques et anthropologisques s’impose”.

If the necessity of a historical approach towards African art is certainly commendable, at the same time I recognise that favouring the anthropological/historical aspects of African art is nowadays an outdated attitude.



Yaka mask

The contrast between history of art and ethnography has long been a reason of conflict for generations of scholars, and only at the end of the last Century the two polar positions managed somehow to come to terms with each other, in particular thanks to the works of Sally Price – in my opinion, a true tipping point.

Thanks to her, the non-existent contrapposition between the ethnographic object and the artwork, between primitives and Western artists, is finally for everyone to see.

The art of the “savages” obtains recognition through the study and valorisation of the cultural environment in which it was generated: no longer an anonymous art, but art made by unknown artists – unknown because of the lack of Western interest in delving into their culture and society.


Yaka people

As Federico Zeri, the great historian and critic of Western Art, wrote in the introduction to Price’s work Primitive Art in Civilized Places, (1989) “…Les faux critères d’atemporalité et d’anonymat, appliqués généralement aux primitifs, sont ceux-là même qui dénaturent les æuvres de nos siècles obscurs…”

In my opinion, we can therefore give an answer to our initial question, affirming that the concept of Art has always been part of African cultures, although of course conceived and expressed differently from Western criteria.

The prevalence of a hieratic meaning in African sculpture, in fact, does not invalidate the inner quality of its products – in the same way European culture shouldn’t be judged on the basis of the religious inspiration and target of much of its artistic production.

Western prejudice and arrogance labeled the so-called tribal art as a mere exotic curiosity, worthy of a Wunderkammern, if anything, rather than a museum. It separated African art from the cultures which generated it, making it anonymous, despising its symbolic meaning… in a word, it applied the same kind of colonialist policy it adopted against the conquered communities.




Then again, why would Colonial Empires explore, study, and appreciate the work of “savage primitives”, whose sole purpose was now to be at the service of the white bringers of civilisation?

Here lays the heart of the matter: transformed into an aesthetic fetish, into a mere ornamental object, a curiosity from a faraway land, the great archaic art of the African continent was subjected to the same kind of treatment its creators experienced – becoming an instrument of a greedy and ruthless colonial imperialism perpetrated by the oh-so-civilised European and American countries.

But, like someone once wisely wrote, “l’arte cura le ferite che crea”, and in fact the re-discovery of the aesthetic value of African art came about by the hands of artists which, although penniless, were rich in taste and cultural sensitivity.

The aesthetic avant-gardes, at the beginning of the XX century, although instinctively, managed to read into those artifacts the manifesto of a new aesthetic, which was destined to revolutionise the art of the century.




In a certain way, Western art gave justice to African artistic experiences and, in part, started to heal those cultural wounds and injustices numerous populations had been subjected to.

There, I like to think of it like that: those Western artists recognised part of the cultural meaning of African art, paving the way for its re-introduction into the aesthetic and cultural riverbed of mankind.

In spite of certain XXI Century retro-gardes, and their nostalgia for a lost supremacy and, in particular, for the privileges said supremacy used to grant them.

Elio Revera


Yoruba shango prof

Shango, Yoruba, Nigeria



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