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Chris Abani on the Balance and Patience of West African Beauty

In Western thought, composition creates beauty. In West African thought, composure creates beauty.”

– Chris Abani

Nigerian author and poet Chris Abani’s book The Face: Cartography of the Void is a reflection on aspects of identity and the cultural elements that come together to make up our values. In this extract, the focus is on beauty, where Abani writes a compelling account of West African notions of the heart of what we deem to be beautiful. Beauty here is something that surpasses the principles of symmetry and perspective and instead goes deep into the balance of being itself, into interconnectedness and the authenticity of human interface.

In Western thought, composition creates beauty. Perspective. Symmetry. The Golden Ratio. An impossible one-sided ideal. In West African thought, composure creates beauty. Balance. Equanimity. Serenity. The essential nature of a thing. Its ase.

In Yoruba lwalewa is beauty, and it means the beauty of truth or even the beauty of existence. The word Iwa is best translated to mean existence, an eternal state, being outside of time. Reality is held in Igba Iwa, the calabash of existence. Iwa is connected to an old idea that holds that immortality is the perfect existence, or better, a timelessness. It suggests that all temporality has ramification in an eternal cycle of existence—at an individual level, at a communal and lineage level, at a cultural level, and, in many ways, at a planetary level. Everyone’s lwa is always part of the Igba Iwa, and the perfect balance between all Iwas depends on the singular balance of each.

Ewa, in Yoruba, is a word that means beauty. But beauty is a complex concept in West Africa. It doesn’t refer only to the visage of things. In Igbo, beauty, nma, is also the word for good, meaning that what is beautiful is good as well. But with a slight inflection it is also the word for knife or even machete—a warning. On one hand, good is a behavioral matrix, and on the other, it is an appreciative matrix, but in both cases it is a communal process. Beauty is not a concept that works in isolation. One cannot be good or beautiful without the participation of others. But there are concepts of beauty in Igbo that are valued even more:

Asa Mpete; a beauty in movement, in being, in face, completeness. Nganga; grace, poise, elegance. Oma; self-awareness, collectedness, balance.

Ewa doesn’t refer to composition in the Western sense. It refers to an essential conformity to an inner trait. Hence driftwood is beautiful because it conforms to its inner trait; it bends with its ase, which is always there but only revealed to us over time. So beauty is a state of existence. Iwalewa is an existence in and as beauty. Since Iwa refers to the eternal constant of a person or thing or even sometimes a place, to create beauty (or even to perceive it) is to capture (or see) the essential nature of that thing. Beauty in West African thought lies in recognizing and respecting the uniqueness of all things and all people. To do this, in Yoruba it is said that one must cultivate patience, suuru.

“Beauty in West African thought lies in recognizing and respecting the uniqueness of all things and all people. To do this, one must cultivate patience, suuru. Patience is the shape respect takes.

Patience is the shape respect takes, and this is a necessary practice, because it is important for West Africans that we understand the essential beauty of whatever confronts us before revealing ourselves or acting. So this respect, which might be better thought of as a thoughtful restraint, is twofold—self-respect and the respect of others—and is itself a form of lwalewa. So we comprehend the essential beauty of everyone and everything around us, and we in turn become beautiful; as the Igbo say, ugwu bu nkwanye nkwanye—respect is reciprocal. For the Igbo, external beauty matches eternal beauty such that the eagle, a common ideal of beauty, is beautiful as much for the way light shimmers through the water in its feathers in flight as it is for the totality of the eagle. To see beauty is to be beauty, therefore beauty is about coming into an understanding of one’s own lwa, or essential nature, the practice of which involves Ifarabale (calmness), Imojuimora (perception and sensitivity), Tito (gentleness), Oju inu (insight), and Oju ona (originality). To be an artist in Yoruba culture is to possess a cool and patient character (lwa tutu, ati suruu).

Look at the faces of Nok terracotta sculpture and see the composure of being-ness—serenity, calmness, and equanimity. Even warriors on horseback gaze into infinity with a patient calmness.

A cursory glance at the Ife and Benin bronze sculptures reveal this attitude toward beauty. In all Yoruba sculpture, the head is always out of proportion to the body, not from any lack of artistic ability, but to emphasize philosophical and spiritual concepts of the head. Ori Ode is the house of the eternal spirit and mind, Ori Inu, and thus the arbiter of human destiny. Iwa in Yoruba and Uwa/ Owa in Igbo are key to the understanding of beauty and the self.

In this way, even in these West African cultures, beauty is still tied to the face (even when thought of as a portal) and thus to power. It is important to wear the right face. To face the world with the right relationship to lwa, the right power, to reveal nothing, to keep a poker face, not to lose face. And in the end it all cycles back. The older Western cultures probably shared the same understanding of beauty and the face, but much of what we now think of as Western thought is a product of the paranoia of the Renaissance and the so-called Enlightenment and the more recent neuroses generated during the Industrial Revolution.

The gulf in perception/worldview or, should I say, in the conceptual premises between Africa and the West can be understood by considering the process of naming, of how being-ness comes about. Consider the naming of a child. In the West names are nominal, but in West Africa they are phenomenal. Names in West Africa are arrived at via consultation (divinatory, oracular, or by consultation within family), and the name chosen reflects the essential character, Iwa or Uwa/Owa, of the new person. It also becomes a performative talisman to constantly manifest that state.

For instance in Igbo, to be named Thuoma (“good face” or “beautiful face”) refers not just to the physical features; it also means that goodness and beauty lie ahead for this person if they cultivate the right “face.”

Chris Abani
From The Face: Cartography of the Void

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