A Lesson in Sanaa Ya Kiafrika for Girls on Wheels

Girls on Wheels gain insight into African culture through the language of its art.

Vicki Baker

More than a century ago, the Western artworld found a new subject of interest. As Europeans advanced the colonization of Africa, they began returning home with a variety of exotic art pieces unlike anything ever seen. European modernists such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse incorporated elements of African masks and sculptures with their bold, sharp lines and warmer colors into their own works. While this led to a radical new art movement, it was still art seen through Western eyes.

Girls on Wheels (Vicki Baker, Nancy Burns, and Susan Hebert) removed our Western lens and viewed indigenous African art from a new perspective at the Kimbell Art Museum’s “The Language of Beauty in African Art.” We had always thought of art simply for art’s sake, that is, the piece that sits on a pedestal in the middle of a gallery or hangs over our couch at home. On the contrary, African art is art for life’s sake. Every piece played a role in daily life. Every piece served a purpose.

Our docent-led lesson in sanaa ya kiafrika (Swahili for African art) spotlighted pieces from the nearly 250 remarkable works on display where we discovered both their meanings and functions. Twenty African cultures from 10 countries were represented, primarily from Sub-Saharan Africa. The exhibition featured a variety of 19th and 20th century pieces from impressive and powerful figures to masterfully carved sculptures, captivating ceremonial costumes, masks, and headdresses, and extraordinary decorative objects.

It is said beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Yet, beauty also resides in the eye of the creator, which oftentimes is different from our own perceptions. This remarkable collection of African masterpieces challenged our traditional concepts of beauty. It revealed how art reflected life in Sub-Saharan Africa through the perspectives and languages of the indigenous peoples who created and used it. Through the very words that they themselves used to describe their creations—their language of beauty.

Girls on Wheels may never truly understand many of these African objects. Yet, by focusing on the art’s functionality and what it meant to the people who created it, we have a greater appreciation that what exemplifies “aesthetics” varies widely among cultures. That beauty is subjective. That beauty can only be defined within its cultural context.