Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

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13 / The Body

Man’s Corset
Man’s Corset
Artist / Origin Dinka artist, Sudan
Region: Africa
Date Second half of the 20th century
Material Beads, fiber, leather
Dimensions H: 30 in. (76.2 cm.)
Location The Newark Museum, Newark, NJ
Credit Courtesy of the Newark Museum

expert perspective

Christa ClarkeSenior Curator of Arts of Africa and the Americas, Newark Museum

Man’s Corset

» Dinka artist, Sudan

expert perspective

Christa Clarke Christa Clarke Senior Curator of Arts of Africa and the Americas, Newark Museum

Unlike many African cultures where you would want to cover the body, traditionally Dinka men believed it was unmanly to have the body covered by clothing, and so most of the clothing a Dinka man would wear was in the form of the beaded corset. And depending on the colors that are used, it’s one of the ways that a man is able to signify his age grade, and status in society and also his wealth, because the wealthier you are the longer the extension is at the back. There is a wonderful back extension that runs along the spine and if it extends up beyond the back of the shoulders, it’s one of the ways of suggesting that this is a man who comes from a family that is very wealthy in cattle which is in the traditional form of wealth. And it’s an interesting tradition because it is one that has come to the Diaspora. We have a lot of Sudanese refugees in the United States, and what you find when many of these refugees have come to the United States and are often in cold climates, like in Minnesota, for instance, they have translated this corset form into a red wool corset that they wear over their Western clothing.

The Dinka corset doesn’t actually shape the man’s body but it certainly does accentuate a kind of slender waist and then it extends up accentuating broad shoulders. So, in a way it emphasizes the ideal shape of a man among the Dinka, but it doesn’t actually form the body.

I think there are a lot of similarities between this desire to express oneself and proclaim one’s identity, and social status, or financial status. In many African cultures, among the Yoruba in Nigeria, for instance, there’s this use of luxury materials. There’s a wonderful example of a raw silk robe called an agbada, which is made with a kind of silk that’s only grown in a part of Nigeria and it is a very subtle color, a very subtle texture, but when that’s worn it’s a signal that this is an extremely wealthy man because this fabric and its fabrication is very expensive. In Western culture I think there are certainly things like Gucci handbags, Hermès scarves that send off the same coded messages that not every segment of the society might recognize, and that too is part of the intent of wearing them—that you are sending signals to a certain set in society.

I think in many African societies, I think the idea of art is in general much broader than in the Western world. Our idea of art in the Western world is really formed in the Renaissance and the idea of fine art as initially being about painting and sculpture. In Africa there is not that kind of division between painting, sculpture, textiles, body modifications in the form of scarification or hairstyle—I think that they are all part and parcel of this broader idea of art. And so maybe some of these traditions exist in Western cultures, but in Africa they’re not perceived as not art; they’re really perceived as one of very important forms of visual expression, and one that can be both personal and also cultural.” 

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