Recently, a friend of mine mentioned the phrase ‘the African Aesthetic’, she was wondering what exactly it meant especially as she was contemplating on incorporating it as an idea for her clothing line. I was remotely intrigued by this mention and decided to look into it. In the process I stumbled upon this very interesting article by Robert Farris Thompson written in 1973; it borders on the concept of ‘cool’ particularly in the West African context and how this concept has influenced African art and aesthetics.

Certain qualities convey pleasure to our senses as persons, but no matter how individually conceived we perceive it to be, it is in fact highly influenced by our environment – some things are simply more preferred by the vast majority and are consequently encouraged as better forms of existence. Beauty as a preferred disposition remains a construct of the society and individuals are conditioned to appreciate certain ideals over others. Thompson explores these ideas across measures of the lexicon, the context and the aesthetic of the cool. 

The art and aesthetics of societies are influenced by certain values, norms and practices and this not only informs the kind of art produced but also the people’s ideas of beauty and appropriateness. There is for instance, the Japanese preference for minimalism, the Western allusion to abstraction in paintings and the figurative form of traditional African sculptures. With this, we see that art and aesthetics are largely influenced by collective beliefs and practices of members of a society.

The English define cool as suggesting composure, collectedness, nonchalance and perhaps a measure of detachment but here’s a definition from the Gola of Liberia in West Africa – ‘the ability to be nonchalant at the right moment…to reveal no emotion in situations where excitement and sentimentality are acceptable – in other words, to act as though one’s mind were in another world…’. I found this interesting from Thompson’s work, the fact that the meaning of coolness in these African societies exceeded the superficial and carried with it a sense of the mythical and metaphysical. There’s the philosophy that the purer a person is, the cooler and more ancestral he or she becomes, and in this philosophy, purity comes through the mastery of self. The cool individuals who have been able to transcend time to concentrate on aesthetic substance and creative matters were likened to the strong, moving and pure waters of the river in their serenity.

The African cool is a special kind of cool and is associated with nuances of discretion, healing, rebirth and newness. It suggests a state of mind and not merely a superficial disposition. Thompson calls it the mask of the mind itself.

This terracotta head known as Lajuwa from the Ife Museum has allusions to the aesthetic of the cool.  The pursed lips (enu tutu in Yoruba) suggest discretion in speech, a desired quality often associated with coolness.  The idea of freshness in the cool also intersect with visual art in the representation of strength and poise suggesting depth of dignity, insight and the ability to command powers of the mind and the body.

The African aesthetic of the cool suggests being able to strike a balance between physical beautification and ostentation and the ability to control the unseen forces of the soul.

*Itutu is the Yoruba word for coolness. The Yoruba people occupy areas of Southwestern and north-central Nigeria as well as southern and central Benin.