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Review of the Exhibition “The Aesthetics of Texture in African Adornment”

When I was asked to write about the objects in The Aesthetics of Adornment in African Art from an artist’s perspective, I realized that heretofore I had not “experienced” adornment as a “serious” art form, perhaps owing to my correlating adornment with the vagaries of fashion-world sensibilities. Western objects of adornment, when viewed within the context of an exhibition, seemed to me to be detached, even when imagined within a living context, as if they belonged to a remote, prosperous, yet “archaic” recent or distant past, rather than to a vivid living culture in which the adornment-enhanced body interacted with the flow of nature.

The best approach to the challenge, I believed, was to choose a sensibility in the construction and appearance of the objects to which I fell closest in my own work—that of the textured accumulated surface. The comments that follow are therefore to be understood as the subjective reactions of a practicing artist, rather than as the outcome of scholarly research.

In Africa, the geometry and texture of the individual human body engages in an ever-changing dialogue with the adornment selected by the wearer. Placing the objects on zones of the body, the wearer is able to convey messages not only of beauty or sexual allure, but also of status, rank, age, tribal identification, and aesthetics, as well as of a state of mind or a desire to placate or seek protection from the environment. This intricate interaction between inner thoughts and outer body reality—hair texture, tone of skin, proportion, height, angularity, and flexibility—is further augmented by sculptural hair arrangements or permanent alterations of the body’s surface, such as scarification. Permanent or temporary modifications of the teeth, lips, earlobes, and nose, as well as tattooing and skin painting or tinting, further complement the adornment. The placement of weighty accessories such as heavy metal belts, bracelets, or anklets affects or restricts gesture, modifying the movements of the body as well as adding the possibility of creating sound.

Materials such as beads, shells, metals, raffia, and feathers, when used to create everyday and ceremonial adornment, can produce a rich textural surface meshing the physical with personal, cultural, and “supernatural” components. In African Accumulative Sculpture (Pace Gallery, 1974), Arnold Rubin discusses the concepts of “power” and “display,” which may also be applied to objects of adornment. “Display” elements include beads and cowrie shells used as currency in trade, as well as bells, fibers, and reflective surfaces. “Power” elements, their efficacy often acquired over a period of time through incantations, include, for example, horns, claws, skulls, hair, etc., thus creating charged surfaces and structures endowed with “special” powers, as well as with the survival life force of the animal part included. The Bamana hunter’s tunic from Mali, for example, with its densely textured surface of protective amulets, fiber, leather, and claws, was “accumulated” over a period of time to maintain its harnessed “power.”

The accumulation and aggregation of elements is a distinctive characteristic of African aesthetic. The Fon cosmetic container from Benin . . . with its elaborate combination of shells, beads, nuts, and seeds, is a perfect example of a more genteel form of this sensibility. The components of this assemblage can be rearranged so that its visual textural drama is altered by both light and motion. A direct antecedent of this aesthetic is the surface tension that is built up by the aggregated elements.

Surface tension is also manifested in flatter, more planar, less aggregated forms, such as beadwork objects, in which the clustered and rippling effect is caused by the beads’ relation to the support fabric, as well as by the building up of tension in the warp and weft of the network armature of threads. As a result, geometric images do not adhere to a rigid mathematical boundary, as perhaps is the case in the beadwork of other cultures, such as North American Indian.

Once the basic geometric formula has been established, the design may expand or contract, inhale or exhale, according to the will of the artisan or the demands of the object’s irregular shape. Figure-and-ground relationships also scintillate and may reverse, heightening the visual surface tension as the sense of background and foreground dissolve. One set of geometric forms will seem to shift position through contrasts of light and dark or color, augmented by occasional unexpected shifts of color or a slight variation in pattern.

The textural surfaces of African objects of adornment add variety, excitement, and drama to the cultural codes that they convey from the wearer to the environment. The body with its pattern of movement is enhanced and given the dimension of a living canvas, on which each individual constructs his or her own image.

From The Heart of the Question: The Writings and Paintings of Howardena Pindell (New York: Midmarch Arts Press, 1997). First published in 1984 for the exhibition The Aesthetics of Adornment in African Art.