ETHNOMATHEMATICS: THE AESTHETICS & SUBJECTIVENESS OF MATHEMATICS

In mathematics by Halima Aliyu

“Pure mathematics is the art of creating and imagining.  In this sense, black art is mathematics” Njock (University of Yaounde, Cameroon)

Objective. Something real rather than imagined. Something unbiased by opinions or personal sentiments and ideas. Mathematics. 

The notion that mathematics is an objective discipline of knowledge is often shared and discussed. Whether it is a human creation or discovered existing beyond human invention, it is undeniable that mathematics possesses truth and logic; it revolves around problems, theories, and laws. That withstanding, mathematics complements language in a manner that allows it to maintain subjectiveness. With the cultural dominance of “western mathematics” through colonization of African territories and the spread of European educational systems, other forms and existence of mathematics are masked and unrecognized. This further covers the possible ways certain aspects of mathematics can pose to being subjectively dependent on particular cultures rather than being universal. 

Humans constantly prove their need to find meaning in things, whether by exploration, creation, or scrutiny. Hence, language proves to be humans’ principal form of communication which sometimes overshadows other disciplines, such as mathematics, as a symbolic method of communication. Mathematics may not be a primary method of communication, but it undeniably plays an important role in our understanding of the world we live in and each other. 

Patterns frequently appear in our everyday lives as visual and mental processes from our human minds- mathematics serves to study those patterns. As the patterns arise, mathematics transforms them from abstractions to concepts in a phenomenal stance of beauty. How mathematics describes these patterns creates meaning and manifests mathematics’ relationship with arts and aesthetics, which have been said to be relatively the most subjective area of knowledge. This then highlights how both mathematics and aesthetics are deeply motivated by beauty. They have a reciprocal relationship as interdisciplinary where mathematical patterns can develop artistic patterns and vice versa. 

MATHEMATICAL PATTERNS CREATE ARTISTIC PATTERNS

ARTISTIC PATTERNS CREATE MATHEMATICAL PATTERNS

Geometry, being one of the oldest areas of mathematics, is known to revolve around shapes, figures, sizes, and positions. With Geometry, many artists were able to create very interesting works of art that transcend mere creation on a piece of paper or canvas. It uplifted personal vision, creativity, and imagination to unimaginable extents, and nothing can be a better inspiration and evidence of this than the art exhibited in African cultures. Africa is the optimum presentation of diversity as an everlasting melting pot of different ethnicities and cultures. And one common feature these different cultures share is their use of Geometry to understand their environment and convey their ideas of truth and meanings of life. 

For centuries, Africans have used patterns, discovering and manipulating geometric concepts to make them symbolic systems. So, mathematics wasn’t far from being a language. They transformed abstractions into knowledge. Ideas from their human minds were then communicated in a highly artistic manner. The significant geometric patterns are visible on decorations covering architectural styles: buildings, traditional monuments, and temples. Geometrical shapes additionally surface on household utensils and objects such as mats and vases. They all simply exemplify how mathematics can be used to create designs that cross the boundaries we adhere to. 

Have you ever wondered why architectural settings and traditional objects such as mats, pots, and baskets appear the way they do? How did the geometrical patterns appear? Was it intentional or coincidental?

Craftsman weaving basket in Mozambique  

Sub-Saharan and Southern Africa are often painted as ‘primitive’ where history is untraceable – a basic diversion from the vast diversity and history that lies within the region. However, the history of mathematics exists in Africa and it has shaped many other disciplines. It still lies in the current traditions practiced nowadays. When analyzing symmetry, one of the most important aspects of geometry, African craftwork becomes a highlight. For instance, in Mozambique, artisans become mathematicians during the production of baskets. The symmetry of repeated patterns was a form of problem-solving that transformed the art of basket weaving that it became adopted into the productions of other household objects. Their calculations to produce repeated strip patterns were the pinnacle of creativity and imagination in relation to both mathematics and art.  

   West African women restoring their mud dwellings (C. Margaret Courtney-Clarke)

Additionally, in West Africa, the use of mathematics is essential for architectural settings. Apart from using magic squares and other mathematical calculations to construct domes, diagonals, and unusual shapes of African architectural structures, geometric forms also appear as ornamentations. Women are known to repaint their households each year a the paint washes off during the rainy seasons. The women use pentagons, hexagons, pyramids, angles, circles, etc. that highlights how art and fractal geometry relate. Their production of creative designs also encapsulates ‘geometrical’ thinking, a form of reasoning with geometric properties to promote design. 

Tambarin Arewa (C. Sultan Abdulazeez)


Mathematics as a form of communication and the symbolic system is found in Palace art in northern Nigeria. The symbol or logo known as “Tambarin Arewa” or “Dangin Arewa” in the Hausa language partly embodies a knot which relates to its English naming “Arewa Knot.” In connection to mathematics, a knot “is an embedding of a circle in a 3-dimensional space.

A star shape is then placed, intertwined in the knot to form the Arewa knot.. Nigeria, like many other African countries, serves as a vast space for diverse cultures. Northern Nigeria (Arewa) is a region that includes people from cultures such as the Hausa, Fulani, and Kanuri, amongst others. Just like how the history of mathematics in Africa seems to be veiled, the power of what the Arewa knot symbolizes is often masked. With the rise of tribalism, it starts to lose its meaning to individuals. However, depicting “Unity in Diversity,” the symbol still stands in power as it remains used in Traditional Palace art. With its integral link to mathematics, the symbol also reinforces aesthetic elements and communicates spiritual and political philosophy.