Afromuses: 1995-2005 Watercolors by Chris Ofili Studio Museum in Harlem April 27-July 3, 2005- review by Geoffrey Jacques

 

 

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The entrance of artists of color into the art world's mainstream has, among other things, challenged that world's idea of the beautiful. What is beauty, and who has the credentials to certify it so? Cultural authorities in the West have made these judgments, in a more or less hegemonic manner, for hundreds of years. During modern times, these judgments have been influenced largely by the Kantian ideals of universal appeal, and by the notion that the beauty of an object can be freely apprehended without regard to its function. At one point in the \work{Critique of Judgment}, however, Kant seems to contradict himself. He points out that the ideal human form may be different for people of different "races." "A Negro must have a different normal idea of the beauty of the [human figure] from a white man, a Chinaman a different normal idea from a European," he says (71, brackets in original). Apparently the idea of the universal goes out the window when those making the judgments are non-Europeans. I don't intend, here, to trivialize Kant's complex ideas on how we know something is beautiful. I just want to call attention to a fact of modern culture that is often overlooked because it is so commonplace. The trouble is that the "normal idea" of beauty has been, within the precincts of serious high art, that "idea" which met with the approval of Euro-American tastemakers. Even though the art of the rest of the world has, for over a century, been shown in the great museums of Europe and North America, the objects and images we see in those institutions have already passed a screening process that very often denatures and decontextualizes them. This process understands these objects and images as "beautiful" according to a set of values whose capstone is the idea of beauty inherited from the Renaissance and carried through half a millennium of Western theory, culture, and history.

 

So what happens when the Negro, under his own steam, enters the temple? What becomes of beauty then? These questions came to mind as I looked at the extraordinary watercolors by Chris Ofili now on view at the Studio Museum in Harlem. We are told that these watercolors are the exercises the artist conducts each morning in the studio as he warms up for the day's work. Each of the 181 works on display is roughly the same size (about 6 x 9.5 inches), and each one is a picture of either the male or female human figure. A few of the pictures are of birds sitting on tree branches. The figures are colored a deep, dark black. The artist has classed them into several groups: two groups called "Afromuses," four groups labeled "Harem," a group titled "The Unkissed," and one of "Couples." They seem almost doll-like, and sometimes seem like caricatures. And yet, these groups of lovers and would-be lovers draw you in with their familiarity and their regal bearing. Some of the male figures sport long beards, and look like members of an ancient priesthood. The female figures (like the males) have wonderfully coiffed hairstyles, which virtually bloom from their heads. They are heavily made up and dressed in colorful clothes that evoke West African fashions. Everyone is dressed up here. What is striking about these watercolors is the density of the color and the instant, pleasing attraction these dark African figures evoke.

 

This is where beauty comes in. There is a sense in which Ofili's work here looks almost like a counter-argument to those evocations of beauty that we come to associate with both Renaissance and "primitivist" ideas. The primitive, particularly, is what these watercolors might suggest to some viewers, but on closer inspection there is a determined avoidance of the primitivist vocabulary. For one thing, the bodies here are jeweled and clothed. The facial expressions are the normal ones of formal portraiture. Whatever hint of sexuality might lie behind these pictures is sensual rather than erotic. The sexuality here is in no way sensationalistic, but is that of an appeal to the senses, to the aesthetic.

 

With these pictures, Ofili challenges us to understand the universal appeal to beauty as one that is truly global. What appeals to the African, to invert Kant's claim, should just as easily appeal to the "European," even though each figure differs in its claim on our sense of beauty. Such difference does not -- or should not -- provoke in us a differential and hierarchical sense of beauty. The Eurocentric appeal has always been one in which difference is seen as a violation of the self-identified, hegemonic ideal. However, ours is an era that increasingly sees that cultural and social equality means not sameness, but the recognition of the other as a human being equal to oneself. Difference, then, can be seen not as a violation, but simply as evidence of the normal variation among humans and among cultures. That means that we're no longer stuck with the old concepts, and that's why the beauty Ofili offers is so arresting.

 

All this should be old news by now. We live in a globalized world, right? The Ofili show appears during the same season that "Vogue" magazine has the Ethiopian-born Estée Lauder model Liya Kebede on its cover and a feature story on African-American artist Kara Walker. But it is also a season in which the latest Hollywood blockbuster romantic action thriller concerns the neurotic adventures of a blond African heroine, played by Nicole Kidman. One can wonder, then, whether the point Ofili seems to be making with these "Afromuses" is one that we need to consider once again.

 

 

      Works Cited

 

 

 

    "Role Model"

      Holgate, Mark. Vogue, May 2005. 228.

     

    The Interpreter

      Dir. Sydney Pollack. Perf. Nicole Kidman, Sean Penn. Universal, 2005.

     

      Critique of Judgement

      Kant, Immanuel. 1791. New York: Hafner, 1951.

     

      "The Cutting Edge"

      Kazanjian, Dodie. Vogue, May 2005. 240.

 

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