By Dr Tafataona Mahoso
TWO linked arguments recently made prevalent by donors, NGOs and some journalists may help illustrate our ignorance of African aesthetics:
The first says: “Our ancestors moved around naked or semi-naked; so how can it be considered unAfrican if African women display themselves naked or semi-naked in the media or on other purchased platforms?”
The second one says: “Our bodies are our own to do with whatever we choose, prostitution, pornography, debauchery and abortion.”
The first mistaken argument can be answered by referring to Claire Keeton’s article: “What is to blame for the rise of the look-at-me generation?” This generation does not just move around naked or half-naked, they invest in their nakedness and/or exhibitionism with the focused intention to make a global ‘impact’. In other words, they are expensively and elaborately packaged for public display to make an impression, using flesh, on all who care or dare to look.
Whatever our great grandmothers wore or did not wear, they had no such intentions; and to miss that obvious difference is to be ignorant of aesthetics. Aesthetically speaking, exhibitionism is not nakedness.
As for the second argument: In African philosophy and in the culture of the Bible, one’s body is not one’s own to do with whatever one chooses. But that sounds too remote to convince a narcissist or solipsist in the digital age. So let me use something more dramatic and in the here-and-now: A person infected with the Ebola virus will never say, “My body is entirely my own to do with whatever I want.”
A child born with HIV will never go around saying, “My body is my own to do with whatever I choose.” A person looking for a compatible kidney donor to enable him to undergo a kidney transplant will not talk like that.
A woman needing two units of the appropriate blood type to enable her to deliver her baby by caesarean operation will not talk like that. The body is a vessel which may be occupied by forces the child may not know when he or she becomes aware that it is his or hers. Africans have always known that and that knowledge governed their stance toward, or their care about, the body.
Now, to African aesthetics: There is a war being waged through the media and arts between the relational body of memory, on one hand, and the anatomical and serviceable body in linear perspective on the other. The first is based on African aesthetics, the second on Eurocentric linear perspective and its aesthetics.
The relational body of memory
In terms of African relational philosophy, a marriage ceremony cannot proceed unless the woman’s mother or a certified relative of the mother is present. The same is true of the woman’s burial when she dies. The body, especially the woman’s body, is tied to the deep and long spiritual and emotional memory of ancestors and not just to DNA.
The relational body is not only capable of being possessed; it routinely carries memory represented by its DNA inside and by its shadow outside.
The place of marriage therefore represents the opening up of that memory system to embrace new relations. The place of burial therefore becomes a new locus of memory for ancestors already buried, for survivors, successors and followers. Mambo Chingaira’s head was taken to Britain because it did not belong to the murdered person called Chingaira. It belonged to the people for whom Chingaira fought against — the invaders.
Bambata’s head was chopped off and taken to England precisely because his body was not just his to do with whatever he wished. Nehanda’s body had to be hidden from Madzimbahwe to prevent her place of burial from becoming the locus of Zimbabwe’s nationalist memory.
Yet the memory severed by intruders was still re-membered after 90 years. Osama Bin Laden’s body had to be taken to the wide seas and thrown away secretly because it was not his to do with whatever he wished. All these efforts to dismember and desecrate bodies of other people’s leaders were meant to dissipate and then erase memory. All these efforts suggest that white people fear the aesthetic, mythical and spiritual powers of the relational body and its shadows.
The relational body of memory fights to clear its autonomous space of intruders. This is the picture of Nehanda and Lumumba. The beauty of Nehanda and Lumumba to the African masses is not based in anatomy, although both were quite attractive physically. The beauty of Lumumba and Nehanda is the capacity to shake Europe, the capacity to fight despite the execution, beyond even the denial of burial and a burial site.
That capacity and collective memory inspired Madzimbahwe to reclaim and redeem their land between 1992 and 2002.
Why Malaika and Lupita N’yongo cannot be Nehanda or Lumumba
Unlike Bambata, Nehanda and Lumumba — who were executed while clearing their autonomous space of intruders — Malaika, Lupita N’yongo and the woman dying to appear on Fashion TV occupy purchased space. They qualify to enter that space because their anatomical features fit what the purchaser considers ideal.
The body dominating white television, white movies, white fashion and advertising is called the body of spare parts in reference to the early days of linear perspective and the evolution of the stereotypically ‘beautiful’ woman of European art.
The artists actually used a grid or graph on which the legs, the breasts, the arms and all external features had to fit the supposed ‘ideal’ in length, circumference and so on. The embarrassment from so much current focus on anatomy has forced some beauty pageant organisers to coin the slogan ‘Beauty with Brains’, suggesting ironically that the purchased space of linear perspective demands too much ‘beauty without brains’ everywhere else.
The aesthetic damage: Why Bev Sibanda’s exhibitionism has nothing to do with our ancestors
I agree with Robert Romanyshyn that one effect of linear perspective is the turning of reality and the world inside-out. What should be internal and intimate is displayed outside while what should be external and public is suppressed or left to a few specialists to deal with.
The media which should make up our public arena are turned into private booths, private couches, private screens for sexting, for making intimate confessions, displaying sex videos and giggling over intimate betrayals and gossip. Couples fight in private about why the husband or boyfriend did not want to hold hands or kiss on the streets.
The public arena becomes burdened with private and intimate matters at the expense of history, heritage, public affairs, environment, ecology, economics and common culture.
In terms of religion, morality and ethics, confession becomes detached from repentance or self-correction. Confession now serves the function of titillating entertainment. When a programme is dismissed as boring in most cases the complaint is that it lacks personal controversies or conflicts such as those in H-Metro which are now threatening to take over The Chronicle and The Herald.
In short, it matters a lot for Africans to study African aesthetics, especially the history of the body in art, religion, industry and media.
The European crime against Sarah Baartman has to be understood in the context of this history. It was a crime not just against Sarah as an individual.
Compelling her to become a serviceable body on the basis of her anatomy and pedigree symbolised white desecration and barbarism against a whole people.
Humiliating people against their religious, ethical and aesthetic values remains a favoured terrorist tactic to this day. And the body is almost always the focus of such attacks.