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Robert Farris Thompson – “Aesthetics in Traditional Africa”

“Aesthetics in Traditional Africa” is an article written by Robert Thompson to show how literate people misinterpret the African sculptures, a form of civilization of the region, to the Africans. The article also talks about the various elements in a sculpture that make them beautiful and well-known by the African sculptures. The people who criticize the African sculpture do not realize the beauty and the true meaning hidden in these sculptures. Due to interpreting the sculptures wrongly, the Africans have failed to develop one of the best cultures in the world. The sculptures done by Africans have their meaning whereby other people from western countries cannot understand. According to Africans, a sculpture resembling the exact looks may be transferred to their children born, or the person might die as a result of the sculpture. This is why some of the sculptures are not the exact image of a person when sculptured.

The hidden meaning in African sculpture can lead people from western countries to interpret it wrongly. For example, elements in a sculpture praised for being excellent might not be worthy praising by the Africans. This is because the meaning of the sculpture does not come directly but from other hidden parts that they know themselves. Therefore, without enquiring, it is hard for a person who does not know how to interpret sculptures to have the exact meaning. Besides the hidden meaning of the sculptures, they also need to have a uniqueness understood by the African sculptors only (Thompson, 1968). The beauty of a sculpture can be determined by its visibility. This means that the sculpture should be clear, which is known by the sculptor of the image. The other factor is that the sculpture should be luminous. The surfaces of a sculpture denote luminosity when well-polished to ensure that it can stay for many years while still shining as it is new. The symmetry of the sculpture is another element that the African sculptures ensure is present in their images.

The evidence to prove the point of the westerners interpreting various sculptures wrongly includes the image of “Egungun” or the “Big Nose” is an image from Nigeria whereby foreigners interpret it as an image of terror or anguish. They used to laugh at it, denoting that it has many wrong things because of its appearance (Thompson, 1968). However, according to the sculptors, it is used to “poke fun” at people who see themselves as important or to self-obsessed people. The other image is the “Alakaro,” which is misinterpreted as an ugly sculpture, yet it has been used as a tool of terrifying enemies during wars. Warriors used this sculpture during wars, whereby the sculpture would be placed in front of the opponents and then started to dance through its conspicuous face. It would scare them away, thus aiding in the defeat of the enemies.

Robert Thompson gets his evidence from the various misinterpreted images sculptured in western Africa, Nigeria. These images have been sculptured by the people of Nigeria with a particular meaning to them. It is important for people visiting the country to ask the interpretation of these various images before they conclude their meaning which would mislead them. A simple and direct translation can lead to the generalization of the value that Africans see as important, which would lead to an academic disaster for those researching the meaning of the sculptures.


Thompson, R. F. (1968). Aesthetics in traditional Africa. Art News66(9), 44-45.


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