My mind lit up when I looked closely at what constitutes African art. I was keen to unpack the elements of African aesthetics. Besides, I was keen to know the source of, and inspiration behind the various designs that Africa executes when beautifying faces in particular. I had been writing my first book for 2021 titled: “Bhudaza: My Beautiful Face, Painted Faces of Women from Matobo.”
Bhudaza, from the word isibhuda, a soft stone from which a colourful pigment is derived, has come to symbolise an annual arts event taking place in seven wards in the northern part of Matobo District. The project, started in 2014 by Veronique Atalla, alongside colleagues Professor John Knight, Pathisa Nyathi, Dr Andre van Rooyen, Clifford Zulu, Violette Kee-Tui and Butholezwe Kgosi Nyathi, has two components, namely painting of hut walls and faces.
Painting of hut walls had some research done, courtesy of the United States Ambassador’s culture fund. The book is titled, “Preservation of Ndebele Art and Architecture.” It is a very handy and comprehensive book that ought to grace the book shelves of all arts institutions.
My desire to pen the latest book was motivated by the desire to balance up between the two components since Bhudaza was not specifically dealt with in the first book. In this one it has been dealt with more definitively.
As I compared the source of and inspiration behind the chosen decorative designs, it became patently clear that the two were informed by cosmic designs. I had previously written books on African Aesthetics and arrived at the conclusion that geometric designs used on hut walls, ilala baskets, ceramic pots, leather, wooden objects and many more carried the same designs that have properties which constitute African beauty.
Other Afro-centric writers, one of them being former South African Minister Dr Mathole Motshekga came up with the adage, “As above, so below.” By this they meant Africans, in their artistic renditions within the cultural plane sought to replicate cosmic, heavenly or universal designs.
Essentially, the one single design is the circle with its variants just like a mutating coronavirus. A close scrutiny of the cosmos will reveal some close relationship with African artistic expressions. Here we are referring to the circle, the triangle, chevron pattern, curvilinear pattern, the whorl, herringbone spiral and others.
My interest, as indicated in the last article, was to relate the symbol being used for the coronavirus to represent it and African hairdos. In African terms, the symbol is cast as a beautiful symbol for an evil, disease-causing organism. Africa would not recognise beauty where evil also exists. Evil and beauty do not co-exist, so Africa posits. An evil man cannot be said to be handsome/beautiful despite his well-formed physical features.
His evil character, which is an inner attribute, negates consideration of physical features which have a bearing on perceptions of beauty. Matters of the heart, the emotional and psychological traits, override external and physical characteristics. This is part of African ideas relating to beauty and countering characteristics.
Then my mind, a mind that seems to enjoy flying high into the world of philosophical and mental vexations, wanted to link the word corona and the “korona” that is associated with a Shona funerary song.
The song makes reference to “kushandira korona.” Is there some link between African hairdos and the symbol for the coronavirus which that had been my initial focus? I turned to the definition of corona. In the first place I wanted to know what coronaviruses are.
Coronavirus refers to a group of related RNA viruses that cause diseases in mammals and birds. It was somewhat some familiar territory as we had learnt about the Ribonucleic Acids (RNA) at college.
In mammals and birds, they cause respiratory tract infections that can range from mild to lethal. In humans’ mild illnesses include common colds, umvimbano. The more lethal varieties can cause SARS, MERS and the now very familiar and intensely Covid-19.
Virus, I know and understand. What I seemed to have forgotten totally was the meaning of corona, minus the virus part. There perhaps, lies the link between corona and “korona” as engrained in the Shona funerary song. The answer and therefore the link came fast. Corona is Latin word for crown. My mind was warming up towards this definition.
The song in question is grounded in Christianity where there is constant reference to royal crowns. The word, that is corona, has its origins in a Greek word for garland, wreath. That’s what some people will shandira for.
The final part is where lay my interest. Coronavirus has a symbol. The symbol passes as an African artistic rendition. The symbol has club-shaped spikes that project from their(viruses) surface, which in electron micrographs create an image reminiscent of the solar corona. My mind raced to the end, to link the solar corona and the symbol and possession of African aesthetic elements. A solar corona is an aura of plasma that surrounds the sun and other stars.
A solar corona extends millions of kilometres into outer space and is easily seen during total solar eclipse, but it is observable with a coronagraph. As a result of ionisation taking place with a corona, it can reach temperature as high as 1 000 000 Kelvin.
The link between the coronavirus symbol and ideas relating to African beauty will be apparent. The overall design of the coronavirus is circular. This is the basis of universal or cosmic creation. The extensions are cylindrical or tubular which translates to it essentially being a circular design as it can theoretically be cut into an infinite number of circular discs. At the end of each club-like extension there is a circular structure that resembles a tuft of hair in African hairstyles.
These particular knobbed-end hairstyles are more prevalent among young babies and children. What is important for our purposes here is the fact that the structure, children’s hairstyles and the corona symbol are inspired by the same phenomena — the cosmic designs which constitute African elements of aesthetics.
For the African the adage, “As above, so below,” becomes apparent. At the same time a circle as a universal building unit is demonstrated. Africans, in their artistic creations, sought to replicate the heavens on the earth’s cultural plane. Virtually all his cultural creations depict the circular design and his eyes are trained to perceive the circle as beautiful, together with its variants.
No African artefact or structures were rectangular (with 90-degree angles) and the humans are no exception. Think about what the Ndebele call igcwalaguma and relate her body form and shape to African ideas of beauty.
At the end of it all, an evil virus cannot, despite possessing qualities of cosmic designs, be said to be beautiful; rounded yes, beautiful, never!