Today’s Standards of African Beauty

Originally a performative lecture during VENUS-The anti-hero hero

My talk today will look at how much today’s standards of African beauty have internalized and adopted the western standards of black beauty, and how much the global visual language we continuously see produced on the black female body is equally as damaging as the local ways and patterns of engaging with the black female body. Since I cannot speak for the whole of Africa, I will, of course, only speak from my own experiences in my community (being female and being an artist in Tanzania).

To put in to perspective what I mean by ‘western standards of black beauty’, I will begin by sharing two things that I came across while I was preparing for this talk, and I think they kind of sum it all up quite well… The first is a combination of two clips from the same episode of the Netflix series Orange is the new black. It’s a dialogue that female inmates are having beauty in general, and about different standards of beauty attached to different communities.

And, the second is a quote from Tami Winfrey Harris from the Clutch Magazine, which is an online Magazine and blog network whose stated target audience is “today’s young, hip and progressive Black woman” which quotes;
One undercurrent to the recent hyper-focus on black women’s bodies has been the idea that while the majority culture has strict beauty standards, black folks just don’t give a damn. In our own communities, black women’s bodies — whatever they look like — are A-OK. *side eyes*… Not sharing the majority culture’s beauty standards is not the same as not having any at all. The black community has its own standard for what women should look like. It’s not more relaxed and it can be just as oppressive as the more mainstream standard… (Standards for women’s bodies are generally predicated on the male gaze.) It is, for sure, a standard that is different from the Eurocentric mainstream, but it is a standard: small waist, round booty, juicy thighs, boobies optional”

This is what (for me) defines as black beauty in the western world, and they are images that we have for years now seen being propagated by the western media, and specifically, media with the black community as its target audience.

From Venus Hottentot to Bootylicious

And now to put to perspective what I mean by the “African standards of beauty”: As we all (maybe) know, the myth is that true African beauty is about taking pride in our own bodies. In Africa, beauty is believed to be about being curvaceous; traditional African beauty celebrates a woman’s curvy yet voluptuous figure. A girl’s ability to bare and conceive a healthy baby is very much associated with the broadening of her hips and a woman’s lustrous round body implies her desirability, her value in being a suitable pick for a wife, and is also reflective of her family’s wealth. Hence, the bigger and healthier, the better.

Okay, I call this a myth because, as much as it might still come as a shock to some people (no one in here I hope), Africa is not a country, so there cant really be a singular standard of feminine beauty that is attached to the entire continent!

I will give Tanzania as an example…

Tanzania has more than 100 ethnic groups, and each has a different standard of beauty attached to it—depending on the region and mode of production.

The ‘Pares’ for example are a community of mostly farmers and beauty to us is defined by size. The bigger the woman, the more desirable she is because she is assumed to be strong enough to manage farming as a mode of production and to provide for her family.

Our neighbors up north, the ‘Maasais’, on the other hand, are a community of mostly pastoralists, and beauty to them is defined by height and skin tone… the taller and darker skinned you are, the more desirable.

And then we have communities of hunters and gatherers who prefer more petit and light skinned

… And then there were of course other rather oppressive requirements that involved body modification and mutilations, but all in all, we generally had a much different standard of beauty and being curvaceous and voluptuous was not really a requirement that stood out…

I want to borrow from this phase that social media went through of looking at a specific situation from different perspective to share my views on the topic

As a Tanzanian female and an artist, I don’t think I succumb much to any particular standard of beauty (although I cant claim to be completely immune to them!). My work, like my life is less interested in exploring and/or using the female body according to any set of beauty standard, but rather looking at the female body in its most private and intimate setting. I am very much inspired by historical narratives that started with personal stories of my mother’s, grandmothers’, and great grandmother’s generation of hardship due to discriminatory social, economic, and political systems, and how they used cultural and spiritual ritual and performances such as rites of passage—birth, marriage, death, etc. as mediums for molding, resisting and subverting the status quo.

My interest in looking at the female body more intimately also roots from my upbringing, that is by and large very much influenced by my mother and my grandmother, who come from an ethnic group (the ‘Pares’) where it is really more about display of kindness and generosity over anything else (beauty included)

Now, my mother and my grandmother do not always see eye to eye in all issues concerning women—my grandmother is from a much older generation and belief system, which maybe succumbs more to patriarchy, while my mother on the other hand is more of a hard-core feminist who thrives on subverting patriarchy—but, despite their differences, there are what I like to call ‘uncompromising lessons’ that I have learnt (from both of these women) while growing up, for example; making sure your guests will not leave your house without breaking bread with you and/or at least leaving with a small basket (of anything, fruits, rice, beans, etc) from your house is a display of generosity, or that if a guest comes to your house with for example a basket of fruits as a present, cutting those fruits and sharing them with your guest is simply a display of generosity… these are the uncompromising lessons, and standards to live by as a woman, beauty and looks count as just additions… As the Swahili would say it: Jamala mtuni utu, sifa ya ndege si mabawa (a proverb which translates: beauty is in a person’s character, a bird is never praised for its beautiful wings)

In 2013 I had my first exhibition at Nafasi Art Space, a contemporary art center in Dar es Salaam, where I was, until very recently, employed as the artistic manager. And during the opening of the exhibition, I remember being surrounded by a couple of male artists from the center (who, after a year and so working for Nafasi, I now consider to be my peers) receiving feedback on my exhibition and more specifically on the series (Orupa Mchikirwa/Mshanga), which was a series based on the story of my great grandmother, Orupa Mchikirwa, who lived in extreme poverty with very few resources but too many dependents. Because of this, there was never really enough food in her house, and much less for her to eat since she had to sacrifice all her food to the children… she was therefore perpetually hungry and as a way of distracting herself from hunger and continue with farming (which was her only source of food), she had to tightly and securely tie around her stomach what in my tribe we call a Mshanga (which is basically cut out pieces of an old rug followed by a piece of khanga fabric).

Before I continue with this feedback, I would like to first point out that when the first poster for the exhibition came out, these same peers had decided that it was some how unacceptable to distribute a poster where my breasts and my bra are visible. So the recommendation was that we find a way to hide this, and hence the difference you see there between the original image and the image that was used in the poster.
Chap-Chap-Rehema-4web MshangaOrupa Mchikirwa (6 of 7)

Now back to this feedback, I stood there with my peers and the most pressing question that they had to ask was: when were these photos taken? (it must have been a very long time ago!). They, of course, asked this because I looked much smaller (and maybe the lighting gave me just the right body type) on the images than I did at that moment as we were speaking (what they didn’t know, of course, is that at the time I was also close to seven months pregnant, so I had, obviously, gained a lot of weight… and I didn’t really feel the need to explain this to any of them because I didn’t think it was any of their business anyway!)… Then I told them that the images were taken less than a year ago, which of course shocked them; I don’t think they believed me!

After lusting over the images for (a bit of a long) while, one of them told me how he thinks it that my work would have been more enhanced had I considered wearing waist beads… they all, of course, unanimously agreed and marveled at this guys genius!!!

At the time I was still more or less a fresh graduate and I had very little knowledge and understanding of Tanzanian art (or the art scene), and even less knowledge and understanding of the kind of art being produced by these artists I was receiving feedback from. But after a year and so of being up and close with these artists working with them at the center, I think I now understand more where this feedback roots from. You see, this is how i feel see myself in their eyes, and all my work, my concerns, and my contributions to the center do not matter because whenever I speak with them, I 80% of the time feel reduced to simply this:

If I were to speak to an average Tanzanian who is not very informed when it comes to art, and I declare to them that I am an artist/ I work as an artist, the image that I am sure would come to majority of their mind (besides asking if I can draw them, or thinking that I make craft—jewelry, baskets, and other fashion items) is this:
Untitled Untitled2

For some reason, there is still a big percentage of Tanzanians, and especially Tanzanian men, who associate the idea of being a female artist to simply being an entertainer. I guess it is not very surprising then that if I am to challenge myself right now to try and name 10 female Tanzanian artists (without including artists from the expatriate community) I will most likely fail at about 5 names! Its is a real struggle for women coming from families without much exposure to art, and with this kind of mentality on what it means to be a female artist to pursue an art career in Tanzania… and an even bigger struggle once they get married! … I think it is a known to these men that this is the kind of thing that interests their ‘eye’, and so allowing their daughter/sister/wife to pursue art, is basically allowing them to ‘prostitute’ themselves for men from all around to see and lust over!!

When i mentioned to Milone (one of the organizers of VENUS-the anti-hero hero) this part of my presentation, she laughed and jokingly asked me “well, what is so wrong with being an entertainer?” … I say, nothing is wrong with it, except if this is the kind of image that is attached to the idea of being a female entertainer in Tanzania!

(This is actually a very popular video especially amongst men in Tanzania)

In April this year I attended a symposium during Koyo Kuoh’s Body Talks exhibition at Wiels with its topic (quite similar to this one): Creating Sarah/Politics of representation of the black female body. One of the contributors in the symposium, Frieda Ekotto, made what I thought was a very interesting point that I would like to reiterate here as recommendation: the time has come for us to collectively start looking at and talking about Sarah Baartman in a more private and personal way (rather than the public way that her image has been explored and exploited over and over again). I think as artists and creatives dealing with politics of representation and reinterpretation of the female black body and the standards of beauty attached to it, we must be cautious of not falling into the trap of repeating and recreating the same image we claim to be against. Looking at Sarah in a more private way opens us up to possibilities of being able to start attaching a real existing person to her as we begin to see her as a friend, a lover, a mother, a sister, etc… and we start becoming less concerned about her body since we are now able to look past the body and start looking at the being. And the body then is used as a vessel to allow people to read into even deeper issues and concerns, than a vessel for defining and/or redefining the very same oppressive visual language that is attached to the black female body.