African and Diaspora Aesthetics


Book Pages: 416 Illustrations: 126 illustrations (incl. 112 in color) Published: January 2007

African Studies, Art and Visual Culture > Art Criticism and Theory, Cultural Studies

In Cameroon, a monumental “statue of liberty” is made from scrap metal. In Congo, a thriving popular music incorporates piercing screams and carnal dances. When these and other instantiations of the aesthetics of Africa and its diasporas are taken into account, how are ideas of beauty reconfigured? Scholars and artists take up that question in this invigorating, lavishly illustrated collection, which includes more than one hundred color images. Exploring sculpture, music, fiction, food, photography, fashion, and urban design, the contributors engage with and depart from canonical aesthetic theories as they demonstrate that beauty cannot be understood apart from ugliness.

Highlighting how ideas of beauty are manifest and how they mutate, travel, and combine across time and distance, continental and diasporic writers examine the work of a Senegalese sculptor inspired by Leni Riefenstahl’s photographs of Nuba warriors; a rich Afro-Brazilian aesthetic incorporating aspects of African, Jamaican, and American cultures; and African Americans’ Africanization of the Santería movement in the United States. They consider the fraught, intricate spaces of the urban landscape in postcolonial South Africa; the intense pleasures of eating on Réunion; and the shockingly graphic images on painted plywood boards advertising “morality” plays along the streets of Ghana. And they analyze the increasingly ritualized wedding feasts in Cameroon as well as the limits of an explicitly “African” aesthetics. Two short stories by the Mozambican writer Mia Couto gesture toward what beauty might be in the context of political failure and postcolonial disillusionment. Together the essays suggest that beauty is in some sense future-oriented and that taking beauty in Africa and its diasporas seriously is a way of rekindling hope.

Contributors. Rita Barnard, Kamari Maxine Clarke, Mia Couto, Mark Gevisser, Simon Gikandi, Michelle Gilbert, Isabel Hofmeyr, William Kentridge, Dominique Malaquais, Achille Mbembe, Cheryl-Ann Michael, Celestin Monga, Sarah Nuttall, Patricia Pinho, Rodney Place, Els van der Plas, Pippa Stein, Françoise Vergès


Beautiful/Ugly is a brilliant and necessary new addition to the current global dialogue around perceived and imposed standards of ’beauty’, while also examining the oppressive nature of this concept. Though often academic in tone, it proves accessible to a wider audience while avoiding the annoying pitfalls of ‘writing down’ to the reader.” — City Press (Johannesburg)

Beautiful/Ugly is an interesting addition to recent literature on beauty because it presents ethno-aesthetics to Western readers. . . . Although the book is not about art history, it is largely about visual culture. Nuttall’s own specialism is literature but, in a well-balanced survey, she weaves together the ways in which Western concepts of beauty affected African cultural production, comments on the historical position of ‘primitivism’ and Negritude, and discusses recent exhibitions and texts from an African perspective.” — Marion Arnold, The Art Book

Beautiful/Ugly is another fine book on contemporary African art from Duke University Press. . . .” — Michael R. Mosher, Leonardo Reviews

Beautiful/Ugly is indeed another necessary exploration into the ‘slippery’ area of emerging international public spaces that are consumed, and understood, locally. For those looking for more about the density and proliferation of African aesthetics, art forms, and creative expression, this volume of essays will prove to be a satisfying foray into that familiar space.” — Solimar Otero, International Journal of African Historical Studies

“[Beautiful/Ugly] is stunningly laid out, and its chapters are color-coded, with more than one hundred color images. The essays, which by and large make for interesting reading, suggest parallels to the work of the ‘new wave’ of academic and nonfiction creative writing of the journalist and writer Binyavanga Wainaina, the cultural scholar Joyce Nyairo, and others.” — Sean Jacobs, Africa Today

“Most of the articles in Beautiful/Ugly plant beauty in the bad soil of the ugly, and they beg the reader to articulate a view of beauty larger than the one tied to a specific art form like music, dance, or sculpture. . . . [Beautiful/Ugly] is an invitation to dialogue, from which Western aestheticians can learn much.” — Dan Vaillancourt, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism

“The book forms an interesting read and is highly recommended for those that are interested in African visual arts studies. This is because it is capable of forming an introduction to the study of African art. It is also recommended for anyone that has interest in a general knowledge of Africa. In this way, the book forms a significant resource material for the study and analysis of African material and visual cultures.” — Ndubuisi Ezeluomba, Consciousness, Literature and the Arts

“The visual and narrative elements of the book would appeal to wider audiences, especially artists, writers, and college students seeking a broader global perspective and information on contemporary African artists.” — Megan Macken, ARLIS/NA Reviews

“This handsomely produced, stunningly illustrated volume brings together mostly original essays on Africa-inspired artistic production and aesthetic appreciation.” — W. Arens, Choice

“This is a beautiful book – that is, the production values given to the publication by Duke University Press and no doubt supported by the Prince Claus Fund are wonderful, beautiful even. The essays are supported by the kind of colour reproduction that it is rare to find even in the museum catalogues of blockbuster exhibitions. The essays are even colour highlighted, and there is an over all feel to the book of sumptuous quality. . . . Beautiful/Ugly is both a timely book and a book of its time. . . . [T]he book is a valuable resource, and one that if read carefully certainly enhances ways of thinking through some African relations to beauty in the world – savages notwithstanding.” — Will Lea, Leeds African Studies Bulletin

Beautiful/Ugly is a remarkable and timely book. Its highly visual and evocative narrative will appeal to a wide audience of academics, students, and artists seeking to understand the place of African art and its aesthetics in a global perspective.” — Mattia Fumanti, African Affairs

Beautiful/Ugly is a theoretically sophisticated, enormously insightful, and refreshing read of the politics of aesthetics and the aesthetics of politics, terrifically well illustrated and beautifully arranged and designed.” — David Theo Goldberg, author of The Racial State

“Finally, a book that explores African and African diasporic concepts of aesthetics with depth and theoretical sophistication. A marvelous collection of well thought-out and finely crafted essays by a diverse group of scholars, artists, and other practitioners on concepts of beauty and ugliness as they relate to artistic and aesthetic practices in Africa and its diaspora. An important reference book and a must read for the specialist and the general public alike.” — Salah M. Hassan, Director, Africana Studies and Research Center, Cornell University


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Price: $29.95

Open Access

Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Sarah Nuttall is Associate Professor of Literary and Cultural Studies at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. She is a coeditor of Senses of Culture: South African Culture Studies; Negotiating the Past: The Making of Memory in South Africa; and Text, Theory, Space: Land, Literature, and History in South Africa and Australia.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Introduction: Rethinking Beauty / Sarah Nuttall 6

Picasso, Africa and the Schemata of Difference / Simon Gikanki 30

Variations on the Beautiful in Congolese Worlds of Sound / Achille Mbembe 94

Two Thoughts of Drawing Beauty / William Kentridge 94

The Place of Beauty: Reflections on Elaine Scarry and Zakes Mda / Rita Barnard 102

Quille Liberté: Art, Beauty and the Grammars of Resistance in Doula / Dominique Malaquais 122

Fresh Stories / Pippa Stein 164

The Love of the Body: Ousmane Sow and Beauty / Els van der Plas 188

Inheritance / Mark Gevisser 204

Let's Eat: Banquet Aesthetics and Social Epicurism / Célestin Monga 224

Let's Cook / François Vergès 240

On the Slipperiness of Food / Cheryl-Ann Michael 256

Afro-Aesthetics in Brazil / Patricia Pinho 266

Yorùbá Aesthetics and Trans-Atlantic Imaginaries / Kamari Maxine Clarke 290

Urban Imaging: The Friche Waiting to Happen / Rodney Place 316

Things Ugly: Ghanaian Popular Painting / Michelle Gilbert 340

Two Stories: Old Man with Garden at the Rear End of Time and The Fat Indian Girl / Mia Couto 372

Seeing the Familiar: Notes on Mia Couto / Isabel Hofmeyr 384

Notes 392

Index 409
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Winner, Arnold Rubin Book Award for an edited collection

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3918-2 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3907-6
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