The concept of taste brings together both style and value in an expression of the self. When we assess the value of an object, we are usually guided by the attributes we find most valuable and the standard of acceptance that makes these attributes positive or negative. In any sort of creative expression, from painting to picking an outfit, we employ those values and style a product that communicates our individual taste. In other words, taste can be seen as the evaluation and manifestation of our own system of aesthetics.
It might be easy to see how we employ our own taste through the consumption of goods and objects. Within a capitalist system, the open market is regulated in part by our demands of taste—we make purchases that meet our style preferences or expectations (which at times can be collective), and designers will often track these preferences when introducing new products. Our position as consumers then holds as much authority in the formal properties of any designed object as does the style and taste of the maker. In any exchange of goods, the aesthetic preferences of both creator and user affect the way the object will look, feel, and be used.
This exchange between producer and consumer is not only a collaboration within the open market, but can quite directly be seen in commissions and patronage. Most of the royal arts in Africa were produced by a reputable craftsperson who was favored by a king or other dignitary. While the expertise of these craftspeople was usually highly valued by the royal court, there were still times that the royal patron would have some say in the outcome of the product.
Consider two Kuba cosmetic boxes (s. ngedi mu ntey)—one in the collections at the Ackland Art Museum and the other at the NCMA. These boxes have become a prominent feature in museum collections and have been celebrated for their geometric designs—often compared to raffia prestige textiles and valued as signifiers of elite and/or royal status. It has been cited that dignitaries would often commission boxes like these as a way to express their status (or desired status) and the boxes would be used to hold grooming items, like razors and cosmetics.
If we look at boxes from these two museums, the formal differences are immediately evident: the Ackland’s container is rectangular in shape with incised designs on the box and lid whereas the NCMA’s container is a curved half-circle with similar geometric patterns on the surface. Neither container is unusual when compared to other cosmetic boxes, but the formal differences do beg the question: why do two objects that hold the same utilitarian function appear so different?
Aside from any interpretation of aesthetics or symbols that the shape of these two containers might warrant, their differences in form tell us that at some point a stylistic choice was made and executed. This decision could have been made by the designer but, given the close interaction between designer and user, could also have been instructed by the patron. Though we cannot know for certain the decisions made about these two boxes, taste is certainly at play. Despite not knowing the exact nature of the designer-patron relationship, a consideration of this network opens new ways for understanding and contextualizing utilitarian objects. We are reminded that behind any object commissioned for use is a series of actions and interactions by individuals who have their own personal tastes. How their tastes materialize through the object is what makes these cosmetic boxes so aesthetically compelling.
Taylor Hunkins is a PhD student at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, current Huntley Scholar for the Ackland Art Museum and curatorial intern at the NCMA. This blog post is part of a series in which Hunkins interprets African utilitarian objects as products of design. Thinking through core principles of design, this project investigates how our understanding of African objects and material culture fits within networks of exchange between people and things. A focus on design encourages us to consider the way that aesthetic and functional values are imposed on and enacted within local cultures, intersecting the disciplines of fine art and craft. This project is in collaboration with the NCMA and the Ackland Art Museum.
Oblong Box: Unidentified Artist, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Bakuba peoples, Carved Box with Cover, early-to-mid-20th century, wood and encrustation, 3 1/2 x 10 7/8 in. Ackland Art Museum, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Robert A. Uchin, 72.34.7
Half Circle Box: Kuba Artist, Kuba Kingdom, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cosmetic Box (ngedi mu ntey), early- to mid-20th century, wood, tacks, and camwood/tukula. North Carolina Museum of Art. Gift of James G. Hanes Memorial Fund (G.73.8.29)