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Art Through Time: A Global View

The Body Art: Man’s Corset

» Dinka artist, Sudan

Man’s Corset

Man’s Corset
Artist / Origin: Dinka artist, Sudan
Region: Africa
Date: Second half of the 20th century
Period: 1900 CE – 2010 CE
Material: Beads, fiber, leather
Medium: Glass, Jewelry, and Metalwork
Dimensions: H: 30 in. (76.2 cm.)
Location: The Newark Museum, Newark, NJ
Credit: Courtesy of the Newark Museum

In many African societies, the human body is recognized as a significant medium and support for the arts.

Dance, body modification, and dress are all highly valued. The Dinka people of southern Sudan lead a highly mobile life as cattle herders. It is important, therefore, that their possessions be portable. Their artistic production centers on wearable objects and body decoration. Materials used in these arts include glass beads, cow hide, shells, ostrich eggshells, ivory, and metal. The colors and patterns in these ornaments are highly communicative, identifying the wearer’s age, social status, and level of prosperity.

This corset is a man’s garment. Traditionally, Dinka men do not cover their bodies beyond these rows of beads; a corset like this would be the entire outfit of a Dinka herdsman. The red and black rows that make up the majority of the beadwork indicate that this corset was worn by a man between fifteen and twenty-five years old. The rigid vertical strip that runs down the back represents his wealth. Here, it rises well above the shoulders, an indication to other Dinka people that the man’s family had quite a large herd.

Expert Perspective:
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.”

Additional Resources

Allman, Jean, ed. Fashioning Africa: Power and the Politics of Dress.Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2004.

“Power Dressing: Men’s Fashion and Prestige in Africa (October 19, 2005 – February 5, 2006).” The Network Journalhttp://www.tnj.com/archives/2006/january/power-dressing.

“Sudan Past and Present.” In Online Tours. The British Museum Web site. http://www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/past_exhibitions/2004/archive_sudan.aspx.

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Art Through Time: A Global View

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Produced by THIRTEEN in association with WNET.ORG. 2009.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-888-2