How do we distinguish between aesthetic analysis and investigating the cultural context of works of art?

The sculpture depicted in this exercise is a Chi Wara Headdress, created within the Bamana Tribe of the Mali Republic in Africa. It is crafted out of wood, metal and threads. At planting time, men of the Chi-Wara association of farmers dance with such headdresses in the fields to honor Chi-Wara, the mythical "farming animal" that taught agriculture to the ancestors of the Bamana. The graceful curving shapes of this sculpture contrasted by its rhythmical, sharply angular elements create a provocative and exquisite object that possesses the potential to evoke significant responses to its inherent (aesthetic) qualities.

To assess the expressive import of this "chi-wara" headdress you must first analyze its sensory and formal properties; i.e., what do you see and how is what you are able to identify organized? This should be followed by assessing the work's expressive qualities by speculating about how its particular sensory and formal elements evoke thoughts and feelings. Finally, a discussion of the Chi-Wara's iconography will reveal additional symbolic and metaphorical meanings as the work is placed within its cultural context.

Sensory properties

At first glance this headdress, carved out of wood, appears to be some type of antelope figure, but it is very different from a naturalistic interpretation of such an animal.

Lines - Since this is a sculptural work, actual lines are utilized only to create textural variations within its head, horns, ears and scales along its back.

Shapes - Curvilinear shapes of varying character occur in this object: very subtle arcs appear in the horns, ears, head and torso; deeper arcs are repeated in four shapes that create the neck; and these curves are echoed in a very abbreviated form in the smaller shapes that make up the scales on the back of the neck. Small triangular shapes are repeated within two areas of the curving neck shapes.

Textures - Variations in texture occur primarily through the shallow incising within most of the shapes. The only areas that are smooth are the front of the neck, the torso and four legs; only slight variations appear due to the carving tools utilized. Metal and raffia attached to the upper half of the head provide additional areas of textural contrast.

Values (dark-light) - dark and light contrast occur primarily as a result of the negative and positive shapes that exist within this form. The darkest areas exist within the more deeply carved areas, between horns and ears and the long incision inside the ear shapes.

Colors - A warm brown patina is employed throughout except for the gray metal and orange colored raffia on the head.

Scale - Head and neck, and especially the ears and horns are significantly larger than the torso and legs. The neck shape is easily the largest area within this form.

Space - The interplay between positive and negative space is very obvious. Triangular negative spaces are echoed by the positive shapes in back scales. Negative spaces are cut into very subtly by the horns and aggressively by the scales.

Formal properties

Unity - The overall warm color, repeated mildly rough textural incising, and repetition of curvilinear and triangular shapes serve to unify this sculptural form.

Dominance - The dominant elements are the curvilinear elements that constitute the horns and back of this work.

Movement (actual or implied) - There is an obvious implied upward thrust conveyed by the horns, and an implied staccato rhythmic quality conveyed by the repeated triangles in the neck and scale shapes.

Expressive properties

Mood - Sweeping curves in a variety of configurations ranging from those associated with horns and ears to the repeated curves found in the body of the Chi-Wara create a very sensuous form and joyous mood.

Dynamic State - Strong contrasts between repeated curvilinear shapes and geometric triangular shapes that exist within an asymmetrical equilibrium create a very dramatic yet extraordinarily graceful form.

Ideas or Ideals - This exciting sculptural work has an obvious affinity to the animal world, while alluding to the human relationship with nature through the creation of repeated manufactured shapes and distortions which are incorporated within natural forms. It functions as a poetic visual metaphor for the organic relationship between humans and the cosmos.