Is There Such a Thing as Ugly Art? The BMA's latest, "Subverting Beauty," explores the form and function of not-so-pretty pieces.


Not all art is conventionally beautiful. Sometimes, it’s meant to scare you.

Beginning this Sunday, July 15, The Baltimore Museum of Art will display art from sub-Saharan Africa in a new exhibition, Subverting Beauty: African Anti-Aesthetics. Featuring 21 never-before-displayed pieces, the show aims not to please the eye, but to stimulate the mind.

Subverting Beauty is curated by Kevin Tervala, Associate Curator of African Art and the Department Head of Art of Africa, the Americas, Asia, and the Pacific Islands at the BMA. Tervala, a long-time fan of African art and its aesthetics, is only a few months away from completing his PhD in African Studies and the History of Art and Architecture at Harvard University.

“We pulled art from our storage vault that people generally tend to shy away from—art that doesn’t get put out that often because of the reaction people usually get from it,” he says of his curatorial work on the show. “We are dealing with objects that people have negative associations with.”

As he explains, however, judgments made about art pieces that don’t adhere to Western standards of beauty can keep viewers from enjoying art that focuses on a different culture.

“The point is—artists are making these things for a reason,” he says. “If it looks ugly to you, the artist is trying to do that, so let’s talk about why the artist wants to make something look terrifying and ugly.”

The exhibit features a range of art, from figures to sculptures to masks, headdresses, and hats. Some of the objects were created as memorandum pieces for family members, while others were intended to help heal ailing friends and family. The pieces come from locations across Africa and most are from the Pre-Colonial period

Tervala’s favorite piece is a never-before-seen household shrine figure from an unidentified Moba artist. The roughly 16-inch-tall figure from Northern Ghana is a human form with no face, posed dynamically with its hips gunning to the right and its tense arms by its side.

“It’s one of these objects that is endlessly intriguing,” Tervala says. “Not only does it have this dynamic human pose where you can see a human in it, but your eyes keep wanting to find facial features that really aren’t there.”

To get the full experience of the exhibit, Tervala wants visitors to recognize that the form of a piece is related to its function.

“We are trying to teach people how to look at African art in a way that most people don’t usually feel comfortable doing,” he says. “Some people think that they need to have an anthropological background or a PhD to enjoy this art, and that’s not the case at all. We want people to look at the art and identify the connections that they see [by] themselves.”

Subverting Beauty: African Anti-Aesthetics will be on display at The BMA July 15, 2018 – June 2, 2019. 10 Art Museum Drive, Baltimore, MD 21228. Free.

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