By J. K. Schmid, Special to the AFRO

Subverting Beauty: African Anti-Aesthetics, which recently opened at the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA), uses a new 750-foot rotating space to expand the definition of African art.

The BMA boasts 2,500 African pieces in its vast vault. Long on display in the African Art exhibit, and the passage connecting the visitor’s entrance to it, are the works collected to get viewers thinking about aesthetics through a variety of perspectives.

A combination of wood, animal horns, bird skull, plant fibers, porcupine quills, earth, and glass, is on display at the Baltimore Museum of Art. (Courtesy photo)

“You could think about how it was used, you could think about the ethnic group,” Kevin Tervala, associate curator of African Art and curator of Subverting Beauty, told the {AFRO}. “You could approach it from a temporal perspective, you can approach it from a thematic perspective.”

These older exhibits were curated by Tervala’s predecessor.

“She basically pulled out all of the most beautiful pieces of African art,” Tervala said.

And in so doing, visitors can get a working knowledge of African beauty.

“When we talk about ‘beautiful,’ it’s how Africans would have interpreted beauty,” Tervala said. “It’s not my standard of beauty, it’s not a sort of Euro-American standard. The societies in which these were created, these are the works they would have thought were the most pleasing and eye-catching and beautiful.”

And it’s from the same standard, an African standard, that Tervala has curated the new African display of anti-aesthetics.

These special works, much like the ones in the neighboring exhibit still have something in common.

“The form of a work is connected to its function,” Tervala said. “With African art, across the board, almost nothing is made to hang on a wall, or sit in a house. Everything has a function, or a purpose in society. It all does work beyond the aesthetic qualities, beyond people appreciating it.”

For example, particularly eye-catching pieces are encased together in one corner theme with the theme Composite.

For example, one mask from the Senufo people of Cote d’Ivoire made in the late 19th century combines a gazelle and a hyena; in another porcupine quills and a bird’s skull are combined in an early 20th century mask by the Manding people from Mali or Guinea. Both are a little chilling, a little revolting to behold, but that’s idea: the function and purpose for the masks in society was to ward away demons and strangers.

“I think a lot of times, especially Americans and Europeans, people who don’t live in the societies, in which they were produced, historically, when they look at them, they tend to be like, ‘I don’t understand what this is, and that means it’s bad art,’” Tervala said. “And so I think what we’re doing with this is show is trying to pull out the reason why artists would have tried to violate the normative beauty standards of their societies.”

Similarly is a collection of figures in a case labeled Uncanny. They clearly have limbs, head neck, feet, front and back but lack faces. What human aspects are recognizable are distorted or exaggerated.

“It’s because, across the board, all of these objects represent a human being who has either passed away or has yet to be born,” Tervala said. “By taking away the facial features, by making these uncanny, strange, mysterious type of objects, they’re able to signal the otherworldly plane of existence of the humans that they’re talking about.”

Subverting Beauty will be on display until April 28, 2019.