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  • Beautiful Ugly: African and Diaspora Aesthetics
  • Sean Jacobs
Nuttall, Sarah (ed.). 2006. Beautiful Ugly: African and Diaspora Aesthetics. Durham and London: Duke University Press, pp. 416$27.95 (paper)

In 1999, Elaine Scarry published On Beauty and Being Just (Princeton University Press) as a provocation to scholars to return to exploring links between aesthetics (in particular, beauty) and political ethics. Beautiful Ugly poses a set of African and diasporic responses to Scarry and to the debate that followed the publication of her book. The contributions are diverse, but the thrust of this edited volume is to argue that something is missing from "Western-based philosophies of beauty," and by extension any consideration of justice based on them.

Beautiful Ugly grew out of an April 2001 conference organized by Nuttall and one of the contributors, Cheryl-Ann Michael, in Cape Town, South Africa, and contributors are a who's-who of literary and cultural theory in and about Africa, especially from South Africa's economic capital, Johannesburg. They include Mia Couto, Mark Gevisser, Simon Gikandi,William Kentridge, Dominique Malaquais, Achille Mmembe, and Francois Verges. Topics include food (Monga, Michael, and Verges), modern art (Gikandi and Kentridge), public art (Malaquais), Congolese popular music (Mbembe), and photography (Gevisser).

In Nuttall's words, the book "is about the unpredictability, mutability and volatility of beauty and its relationship to ugliness in Africa and its intersections with the world" (p. 8). Ugly, for Nuttall, "has so often been the sign under which Africa has been read" that the aim here is to engage with and depart from canonical notions of beauty (like Scarry's), to "pluralize" it, and to reconfigure ideals of it. Nuttall and her contributors want to write Africa into existing academic debates about aesthetics. Their effort would contribute "to the emergence of a properly global epistemology of beauty and ugliness," and more broadly, a rekindling of a "politics of hope" in the midst of hardship for the continent and its diasporas (p. 8).

According to Nuttall's introduction, beauty in Africa has been read through four "registers." The first is the inscription of Africa in Western aesthetic discourses as the figure of the ugly. (Nuttall covers familiar targets, such as Immanuel Kant's assertion that the African "has no feeling beyond the trifling," Picasso's use of African themes in attempts to get outside conventional artistic values, and counterpositions articulated by Franz [End Page 138] Fanon, Toni Morrison, and other such figures.) The second register has been the anthropological; the third, modernity; and finally, beauty in Africa has often been seen as frivolous or viewed as subject to economic and political factors (pp. 9–13).

Mark Gevisser's essay, which in his words is an attempt to write a "history of beauty in pain," is representative of the book's strengths. Drawing on his research experiences for several projects (separately a novel, a biography of the South African president Thabo Mbeki, and a study of gay life in Johannesburg under apartheid), Gevisser uses old photographs to talk about the contradictions of sex, race, leisure, and the ordinariness of life under apartheid: "Buried deep in the filing cabinets, I came across a folder entitled 'No Colour Bar 1961.' I pour its contents out onto a table and they are a genie unbottled, the stardust of what may have been: dozens of prints of blacks and whites boxing together, playing tennis together, acting on stage together, swimming together, jamming together in late-nite jazz clubs" (p.  209). For this reviewer, Gevisser's essay most movingly achieves Nuttall's stated goal—of departing from concepts of beauty as a "moral, abstract, and unknowable concept," and to relating it to "a set of powerful and differentiated contexts, but not fully contingent on those contexts" (p. 9).

Nevertheless, it is unclear that the contributions add up to an un-Western or particularly "African" response to Scarry's book. Beautiful Ugly is heavily biased in favor of South African contributors and topics, in the process belying its continental and diasporic ambitions: of the seventeen contributors, at least six live in or write about South Africa. The quality and tone of the contributions vary, with essays by Michael...


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