Author Archives: Kevin Tervala

About Kevin Tervala

Kevin Tervala is the Curatorial Fellow for the Arts of Africa, the Americas, Asia, and the Pacific Islands at the Baltimore Museum of Art. A specialist in African art and architectural history, he is currently completing a Ph.D. in African Studies at Harvard University.

Beholding Beauty

Beauty stops us in our tracks. It makes us pause, look, consider. Sometimes it overwhelms us. Oftentimes it makes us uncomfortable, even if only for a little bit. Whether it comes in the form of a painting, a person, or a flower petal, beauty forces us to visually engage with the world around us. But what makes something beautiful? What visual characteristics trigger this act of visual apprehension and appreciation? Over the course of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, scholars and activists have brought to light the socially constructed nature of beauty. What is beautiful to me, they have correctly argued, may not be beautiful to you. And what is beautiful to us today, may not have been so to individuals living in the past.

Although it has now become somewhat passé to discuss the idea of beauty in conversations about art and art history, the concept remains critical when addressing objects made outside of the Euro-American sphere. Indeed, in order to fully understand and appreciate the artistic value of historic artworks made on continents such as Africa, you first have to understand the visual characteristics that were valued by these societies at the times in which they were created, which is to say you have to understand what they considered to be beautiful.

Take, for instance, these two sculptures from the Asante and Mangbetu cultures of west and central Africa. On first glance, they appear to us as stylized, non-naturalistic representations of the female form. While we may, for instance, be able to appreciate the almost perfect circle formed by the head of the Asante Akua’ba, few of us may immediately find it beautiful. Similarly, while our interest may be piqued by the elongation of the skull displayed in the Mangbetu figurative vessel, it would strike many of us as distinctly non-normative.

However, should we choose to dig a deeper into the cultures and customs of the Asante and Mangbetu during the early twentieth centuries—the time periods in which these two pieces were created—we would find that our aesthetic judgments were not at all shared by the artists and societies that produced these works of art. Far from it. For in reality, these pieces are representations of a physiognomic ideal, a concept of human beauty that first emerged in the royal courts of these kingdoms and were subsequently transmitted to the general populace through artistic works such as those cared for by the Baltimore Museum of the Art.

Among the Asante Kingdom, which ruled the area now known as Ghana between 1701 and 1957, the ruling elite privileged broad, sweeping foreheads and flattened, almost egg-shaped skulls. Flatness, to them, denoted beauty and the shape of the egg alluded to the “mystery of the egg” in Akan cosmology, where eggs symbolized the Beginning and the return to it.[1] As a result, Asante royalty used cosmetics and other, more permanent forms of body modification to achieve this figurative ideal. Indeed, the British colonial administrator Eva L. R. Meyerowitz noted in 1951 that “The king’s head, like those of all children of the royal house, has to be massaged during the first weeks after birth so that a greater width of skull, which is believed to give dignity and importance to a person, is achieved.”[2]  Similarly, the noted Africanist art historian Roy Sieber recounted in 1972 that “After birth the heads of Kwahu [an Asante sub-group] infants are massaged at dawn for three days to assure a high, flattened, receding forehead.”[3]

Meanwhile, thousands of miles away, in the northeastern corner of what is now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Mangbetu kingdom of the 18th and 19th centuries practiced as form of body modification known as head binding.  Thought to have begun in the court of the king, the practice consisted of wrapping a baby’s head with a cord made of human hair or plant fibers in weeks immediately following its birth.[4] This permanent elongation of the skull, which was seen as a marker of status and beauty, would then be further emphasized throughout the life of both men and women through head wraps and basketry caps. Taken together, the permanent alteration of the skull along with the application of these elaborate headpieces allowed the Mangbetu to achieve what they considered the height of beauty: a long, thin skull that projected back into space.

The philosopher Wittgenstein tells us that the sight of something beautiful induces in us a desire to copy. This was as true for the early twentieth century Asante and Mangbetu as it was for Wittgenstein and his European contemporaries. Indeed, these pieces owe their creation to that impulse. Asante and Mangbetu artists wanted to create an artistic manifestation of the perfect human form. And while works such as the Asante Akua’ba and the Mangbetu figurative vessel may strike the contemporary Western viewer as odd or non-naturalistic, when we looking at art from places and times not of our own, we must remember that old saying: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Unrecorded Mangbetu artist. Figurative Vessel. Early 20th century. Ceramic. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Anonymous Gift, BMA 2007.279.

Unrecorded Mangbetu artist. Figurative Vessel. Early 20th century. Ceramic. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Anonymous Gift, BMA 2007.279.

[1] George Nelson Preston, “People Making Portraits Making People: Living Icons of the Akan,” African Arts 23, no. 3 (1990): 72.
[2] Eva L. R. Meyerowitz, The Sacred State of the Akan (London: Faber & Faber, 1951), 56.
[3] Roy Sieber, “Kwahu Terracottas, Oral Traditions, and Ghanaian History,” in African Art and Leadership, eds. Douglas Fraser and Herbert M. Cole (Madison, University of Wisconisn Press, 1972), 176.
[4] Enid Schildkrout and Curtis A. Keim, African Reflections: Art from Northeastern Zaire (Seattle: University of Washington Press and the American Museum of Natural History, 1990), 123-125.