Health, Wealth, and Beauty

George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University

Most African aesthetic qualities or criteria for beauty directly embody social attitudes. Thus, whereas composure and calm represent qualities desired in a ruler, health, strength, and fecundity are crucial for the comfort or even survival of small agricultural communities. Similarly,

Wealth, which is usually shared in these small communities, is always highly regarded and carries the connotation of nobility of character. Because there was virtually no labor for hire, it was almost impossible for an individual to accumulate wealth without the willhlg cooperation of many people in the household and in the community. Signs of wealth in African art thus indicate personal charisma, fairness, and generosity, since the labor needed to acquire wealth in the first place could only be procured by one who showed these qualities. Wealth is also a sign of power and prestige. [Susan Mullin Vogel, Aesthetics of African Art: The Carlo Monzino Collection, N.Y.: Center for African Art, 1986, 21]

Wealth appears in representations of supernatural forces, such as spirits, thereby triply paralleling art of the medieval West: first, such uses of wealth honor the spirit; second, it provides a desired anti-realism; and third, it indicates or sumbolizes a spiritual nature.

Postcolonial Web [Africa] Nigeria OV Visual Arts