Exploring Motherhood in African Arts

April 06, 2018 By: Herbert M. Cole

My fascination with the arts of maternity began 52 years ago, in 1966, on my first field trip among the Igbo in Eastern Nigeria. By a roadside, I was surprised yet delighted to see a larger-than-life sun-dried clay figure of Ala, Earth goddess, with two children at her sides, central in a mbari house.

These sculptures and others in this large, temple-like structure were the tangible manifestations of a complex ritual I would go on to study, leading to my doctoral dissertation and a book, Mbari: Art and Life Among the Owerri Igbo. This powerful Igbo deity is the mother of all living things, also the font of morality and guardian of traditions—a cultural genetrix.

Mbari to Ala in Umugote Orishaeze, Imo State, Nigeria, 1966
Photograph by Herbert M. Cole

From that beginning, I have been captivated by the mother-and-child theme over the years and in many parts of the continent. When in 1971, I read Gilbert Bochet’s report on a Senufo mother-and-child in Susan Vogel’s titan book, For Spirits and Kings, that the deity Ancient Mother nurtures male initiates with “the milk of knowledge”, I could not let this subject remain unexplored, so I went to Senufo country in 1978, in part to pursue this topic.

Senufo Mother and Child Figure, Ivory Coast
H. 25 inches
Cleveland Museum of Art. 1961.198
James Albert and Mary Gardiner Ford Memorial Fund
Senufo Tyekpa Maternity Figure, Ivory Coast
Wood, Oil Patina
H. 21.3 inches
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1981.397
Gift of Lawrence Gussman
Senufo Maternity (Perhaps Ancient Mother) Figure, Ivory Coast
H. 35.2 inches
National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution. 2005.6.51
Gift of Walt Disney World Co.

Milk of Eternity, Milk of Knowledge

The Virgin Mary Nursing the Christ Child
Red Monastery, Egypt
Painting Conserved March 2015 by Emiliano Ricchi and Alberto Sucato
Photograph Alberto Sucato, courtesy of Professor Elizabeth Bolman

And just recently I discovered a 5th century C.E. Egyptian Virgin Mary nursing the Christ child (ca. AD 500), which stimulated supplicants, hoping her milk would give them eternal life, as recounted here:

We wish that you would deign to give us a little milk from [your] breast, so that we might drink it and never die. For we have riches in abundance, and innumerable possessions, but no one to inherit them. A request made of the Virgin Mary by a family of wealthy magicians.
—From the Coptic book of Aur, c. 14th century, quoted in Bolman 2005:13

So, this project has a long history in the world from Saharan rock arts and ancient Egypt to yesterday, and for more than half my life as well, as what can rightly be called a labour of love.

In 1986 I curated a small exhibition on maternity images at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), and it was one of five themes in an exhibition and book I did at the Smithsonian in 1989, Icons: Ideals and Power in the Arts of Africa.

More than a decade ago I proposed another exhibition, exclusively on African maternities, at the Museum for African Art in New York City. Enid Schildkrout and I applied for a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant that was turned down (that museum later closed)—"the project is too ambitious,” said the NEH, perhaps because I insisted that the proposed show and catalogue include modern and contemporary art. I shelved my ideas for a while, yet returned to research and writing about four years ago. Why the subject has not been taken up by women who are mothers I cannot say, but I could not let the subject go, and this book, Maternity: Mothers and Children in the Arts of Africa, was finally published. I’d like to share some aspects of this rich subject in brief form here.

Maternity: Mothers and Children in the Arts of Africa

I am not very much concerned with the biology of motherhood—live sperm meets live egg, and about nine months later a baby emerges from the mother’s womb. But the cultures of motherhood vary enormously both on the African continent and when compared with ideas and practices in the West. My text explores these differences.

For most African women until very recently, having a child is life’s highest calling, and they have gone through difficult ordeals to conceive and give birth to a healthy baby. For example, women in many parts of Africa make or order a ‘child’ figure that they lovingly dress, feed, bathe, carry, and address as if the ‘child’ were alive. One chapter of eleven in the book explores the images of ‘children’—nearly always smaller, more abstract, and sculptures of mothers with children, but essential among many African peoples.

Many such ‘children’ are sculptures consecrated at a shrine to seek ancestral and other spiritual help toward a safe pregnancy and the birth of a handsome, robust child. That the surrogate ‘children’ are normally called ‘dolls’ is one of my pet peeves. That word trivialises African beliefs and ritual actions nearly to the point of being racist. Yes, some such child figures are or become children’s playthings, dolls. But most start out as tangible prayers, strongly affirmed, well-loved and acted upon by hopeful mothers, and many are returned to the shrines that empowered them.

An Akua'Ba Tucked into the Wrapper of an Asante Woman, Ghana, 1972
Photograph by Herbert M. Cole
Asante Tano Shrine Near Kumasi, Ghana, 1976
Photograph by Herbert M. Cole
Akan Mrammuo Gold Weight, Ghana
H. 1.4 inches

Some images simultaneously represent ‘children’ and nubile young women, and many embody important aesthetic and social values of the people who make and hold them. Those adorned with costly beads, for example, refer to and seek prosperity, which a new child partly represents. No African language I know of has a word that translates as ‘doll’. So, just as Yoruba scholars cringe when someone refers to a twin figure as an ‘ibeji doll’, I cringe when people call images of African children ‘dolls’.

Another of my pet peeves, explored in some detail, is the simplistic but popular stereotype of a maternity image, especially a nursing mother, as a ‘fertility goddess’. Well over half the African mother-and-child images in existence depict ordinary women, devotees of gods, yes, but not themselves deities. The Nigerian Yoruba, for example, have produced thousands of maternity images, yet none are identified as goddesses. Yoruba and other mother figures represent women in daily life, the wives of chiefs and deities, queen mothers, ancestors and town founders.

Elsewhere there are many unidentified maternities and certainly deities, but to reduce African thought and belief to a glib stereotype is again to deny the richness and nuance of African thought, belief, and ritual.

7,000 Year Overview of Maternity Imagery

Alabaster, Statue of Queen Anknesmerye and Pepy II., Egypt
6th dynasty, ca. 2288-2224 BCE
H. 15.3 inches
The Brooklyn Museum. 59.119
Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund

After an introductory chapter that lays the groundwork for exploring the topic, two chapters look at the history of maternity images on the continent. Beginning with six- to seven-thousand-year-old rock paintings and engravings in the Sahara and in southern Africa, the text moves to several images from ancient Egypt, then to Nok, Sokoto, Bura, Benin and Owo, and then to Ethiopia. One splendid Egyptian alabaster mother was regent for her six-year-old son, Pepy II, seated on her lap before he was able to act as pharaoh.

Possibly this and certainly many hundreds of later maternities in varied materials represent the great mother goddess Isis (and her son/husband Horus), credited with the annual flooding of the Nile that enabled agriculture to flourish. A great innovator, Isis is credited with introducing agriculture, weaving, medicine and marriage. Her magical skills enabled her to foster conception, birth, and resurrection. She gave birth to pharaohs and nurtured them, so we can include her in an important role in the historically and geographically widespread 'politics of maternity' that I explore from ancient Egypt to fifteenth century Ethiopia and modern South Africa.

Other early maternities are shown from Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Ghana, and Kongo, and European influence in images are notable in Ghanaian and Kongo arts from well before the 19th century.

Most of chapter three is devoted to more than a dozen anomalous fine sculptures of mothers with children in terracotta from Djenne sites in the Inland Delta of the Niger river, ca. 1100-1700 CE. Many are anomalous because they depict diseases or varieties of snakes and serpents on the bodies of both mother and child. This chapter also explores the phenomena of twins, exceptional children in most African cultures, as well as other multiple births as depicted in these marvellous terracottas and among other peoples of western Sudan.

Djenne-Juno Female Figure with Four Children, Mali
ca. 12th–15th century
H. 13.3 inches
Yale University Art Gallery. 2006.51.116
Charles B. Benenson Collection

Chapter five is devoted to cultures, or regions within them, that have given extraordinary emphasis to mothers with children in their religious and socio-political beliefs and rituals. These include the Bamana and Senufo in Mali and Ivory Coast, respectively, the Igbo and Mbembe of Nigeria, and the Lulua, Pende and Luba of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We’ll look briefly here at Igbo and Pende examples and the ritual processes involved in their creation.

Mbari: Art as Process in Igboland

Obi Ala Figure in the Mbari Dedicated to Her in Ndiama Obube Ulakwo, Nigeria, 1966
Photograph by Herbert M. Cole

Earth, Ala, is the dominant generative, all-purpose deity for the Owerri Igbo in southeastern Nigeria. For more than a hundred years she has been the recipient of extraordinary sculpture-filled houses, called mbari, created as major community sacrifices to this powerful goddess. Ala is larger than life size in mbari, an older woman, a mother with one or two children. All other figures are half her size or smaller. Earth is the mother of all other gods, of plants and animals, including human beings. She is the true ‘ground of being’ for Owerri people, the font of both fertility and morality, the source of tradition and therefore, culture. She is at once nature and culture, inseparable and simultaneous. Because culture is so dependent upon and bound to her 'nature'—her material essence and character in local thought—the two must be understood together.

The deified Earth is sometimes seen in conjunction with her fertilising sky world male partner, Amadioha, god of thunder and lightning—and rain—but in the Owerri world, he is clearly secondary to Earth. Mbari images of Ala, Earth, are modelled in sacred clay dug up by initiates from deep within termite mounds (the clay is pulverised in mortars with water to become the consistency of pounded yam, the staple Igbo prestige food). Twice processed, first by termites and then by women as if they are preparing food, this unusual sculptural medium is in fact called fufu—the local name for balls of pounded yam readied for eating.

In a similar example of ritual wordplay, mbari spirit workers say they are going to the 'yam farm' when they leave at night to collect spirit-infused termite hill clay. The fact that a queen termite hatches as many as thirteen million eggs per year is not insignificant. This numinous 'clay' becomes a visible symbol in mbari of the productive, sacred Earth that supports us, and that is also understood as a powerful if unseen deity. Earth’s essence—omnipresent, sacred, fertile, generative, nurturing, law-giving—as interpreted in Igbo thought and action, is nature, and at the same time, culture.

From First Image:
Female 'Spirit Worker' Pounds 'Yam' Given to Artists to Model Figures. Igbo Peoples, Nigeria
Nnorie Mbari in Process, Igbo Peoples, Nigeria
Front Mbari to Ala by the artist, Ezem, in Inyeogugu, Nigeria, 1960
Inside of an Mbari House Showing a Mud Sculpture depicting Ala, Goddess of the Earth. Sitting on her Knees are a Small Boy and a Small Girl, 1946
Inside of an Mbari House, Igbo peoples, Nigeria
Seated Mud Sculptures Inside an Mbari House Depicting Two European Men and a European Woman Between Them, 1946

Colour Photographs by Herbert M. Cole
Black & White Photographs by William Fagg

Larger mbari houses featured paintings of the sun, moon, and arcing rainbow, which, when seen in conjunction with varied renewal rituals, such as the planting of an actual farm for the spirit workers, their initiation and adoption of new names, proves the mbari to be a cosmic symbol, or at the least a symbol of community renewal and regeneration. So yes, Ala is a ‘fertility goddess’, but at the same time, she is a great deal more than that.

Could it be that the deity responsible for morality and ethics, also the source and keeper of tradition, achieved these characteristics because she was seen as the mother of all, so well asserted by the children with her as well as the other modelled deities and villagers, her family, in her house—the mbari? If the close bonds in life between a mother and her children help account for their character, their moral and ethical values as well as their adherence to the cultural traditions she inculcates, as we all believe, then the same might be true of the most powerful local god toward her entire Igbo community.

The Kibulu of chief Komba Kabato, Pende, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 1955
Photograph by Leon de Sousberghe
Courtesy the Eliot Elidofon Archive, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution

The sculptured wood finial atop eastern Pende great chiefs’ houses (sing. kibulu) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is an axe-wielding mother and child. Rooftop maternity figures holding weapons were symbolically vital in announcing and protecting a chief’s sacred domain and his initiation to and training in sorcery, skills enabling him to lead his people.

The maternity figure presides over and guards the secrets of chiefly power contained within this structure, also the chief’s residence. The ‘stomach’ of the house is its innermost sanctum beneath the centre pole supporting the roof figure. Into this ‘stomach’ are deposited all the seeds and grains grown locally, with protective medicines added. A prayer intoned when these items were secretly placed, in the early morning darkness, indicates that the house and its contents embody a microcosm of the Pende world. This is the chief’s invocation to his ancestors and constituents:

You are the centre pole of the house, you are the village with its people, fields, and forest. We have given you all the seeds for cultivation so that you may grip the earth as the seeds [roots] grip the earth over there. All seeds grow, may you grow [as] the seeds grow, so that the women may give birth, so that there may be lots of palm wine, so that the hunters may kill [their prey] with their guns.
—Strother 1993: 161

Left Image: Pende Mother and Child Roof Finial Carved by Kaseya Tambwe Makumbi, Democratic Republic Of Congo
ca. 1950
H. 60.2 inches
Royal Museum for Central Africa (RMCA). EO 1950.25.1

Right Image: Pende Mother and Child Roof Finial, Democratic Republic of the Congo
H. 49.2 inches
Wood, Metal, Pigment
Africarium Collection
Photograph by Austin Kennedy

The axe-wielding roof-top mother-and-child (kishi-kishi) is the public declaration of these ideas, visible at a distance because of its size and elevated position. The figure recalls a woman-chief, first wife of the polygamous great chief, emphasizing the nurturing role of the chief himself. Under ancestral sanctions, she is a protector of Pende life within the chief’s realm, her often-worn leopard-tooth necklace signalling this authority. Her weapon is surely a warning to anyone of evil intent, a warning reiterated by medicines in the ‘stomach’ below.

As first wife, she has several ritual duties regarding agriculture, and she is a political force, as well as a spiritual emblem. She dances with an axe at the chief’s investiture, then hands it to him to behead a dog in one stroke. Its blood and that of a goat killed by his first minister is collected in a cup (held in the left hand of some rooftop figures) that is passed to all present. Her child represents the continuation of her matrilineal line, and reminds the people of the death of a sister and thus the loss of a lineage. (Petridis 2002: 133; Strother ibid: 176)

Prominent Mothers

Our Lady Mary and Her Beloved Son, Christ With Crown of Thorns, Ethiopia
Late 17th or early 18th Century
H. 6.7 inches
Tempera & Gesso-Covered Wood
Institute of Ethiopian Studies, Addis Ababa. 110.3492

The Pende sculptor, Kaseya Tambwe Makumbi, is especially noted for his finial sculptures in a more naturalistic style than most Pende works; he was partly influenced by Madonna and Child images in the hands of missionaries during his productive years, the 1940s and 1950s when roof-top maternities became popular (Strother 2014: 141). Notably, Kaseya also carved figures for sale to Europeans (ibid.)

Pende symbolism parallels that of Ala in mbari houses to some extent, although the Igbo microcosm is elaborately celebrated publicly in an mbari by the many sculptured inhabitants and celestial paintings. An mbari is open, visible to all, and even a magnet for anyone in the region. The Pende house, while visible at a distance, is also decorated with added images yet is off limits to all but a few.

There is a hierarchy of fences, courts or vestibules and sometimes guardian sculptures and faces that impede access to sacred zones within. The larger outer room houses more public chieftaincy insignia, while the small inner room contains and hides powerful chiefly masks. The Pende notion of microcosm is more veiled. Still, several cosmic metaphors attach to this sacred structure, its contents and art, for it is seen as a 'house of the dead', a foyer to the ancestral other-world, 'the heart of the village', as a granary, and a corral where ancestors send game animals as food for their descendants. (Strother 1993: 176, 2004: 277). And like mbari houses, whose 'yam' must return to Earth to fertilise it, a Pende chief’s house is a deliberately impermanent structure that may not be repaired.

"The kibulu is also an aesthetic object testifying to the wealth, rank, and personal tastes of a named individual" (ibid: 291).

Chapter six explores the diversity of mother-and-child imagery in Urhobo, Igbo, and Idoma shrines, Cameroon royal portals and sculptured ensembles, in theatre and performance, in combs, spoons, puppets, vessels and staffs, in multi-media assemblages such as Fon bocio, in cloth, metals, stone, and more recently, in glass and acrylic paintings and photographs.

The uses of the mother-and-child theme seem to be both arbitrary and sporadic in many areas, yet they are also very widespread in a huge variety of object types and materials across the African continent.

Kongo Mothers: Founding Aristocrats

Yombe Mvuala Staff Finial, Democratic Republic of the Congo
H. 5.5 inches
Private Collection

Chapters seven, eight, and nine examine the rich varieties of maternal imagery among the Akan, Kongo, and Yoruba peoples, all of whom have given extraordinarily focused and elaborate treatments to this theme over time and in many varied kinds of objects. Each of these three peoples, therefore, deserves a chapter of its own.

Among the Akan of Ghana, for instance, are several royal gold-leafed maternities, as well as miniature gold weight, drum, and military flag versions, and shrine sculptures of queen mothers in many varied styles. These Ghanaian examples are often associated with proverbs and other sayings and are owned collectively by states or military organisations, whereas Baule maternities (from Ivory Coast to the West) have fewer proverb associations and are individually owned by priests and ordinary people.

Yombe Phemba Maternity Figure, Democratic Republic of the Congo
H. 11 inches
Private Collection

The Kongo chapter features the art of two famous master carvers, as well as power figures, minkisi, and imagery influenced by Christianity, which entered the Kongo region in the 15th century. Wood and ivory staff tops and the tourist arts of Loango are also discussed.

The Yoruba, the continent’s most prolific artists, have created many thousands of maternities in all materials, from ivory to beadwork, but predominantly in wood, both in relief and as freestanding sculptures, mostly found originally in shrines, as well as diviners’ sculptures and palace house posts and doors that include the motif. The Yoruba consider that ‘mother is the only deity worthy of worship’, and they see her as the container of the world’s secrets and mysteries, as manifest in several types of containers that feature mothers with children.

The Mothers of Masquerades

Yoruba Epa Helmet Mask, 'Mother of Twins' (Iyabeji), Nigeria
Attributed to Bamgbose (d. 1920) or Areogun (1880 - 1954)
H. 49.5 inches
Wood, Polychrome Paint
Toledo Museum of Art. 1977.22
Gift of Edward Drummond Libbey

The next chapter is devoted to maternities in masquerades among several West African and Congolese peoples. The chapter begins by exploring the Yoruba male Gelede masquerade, which is explicitly devoted to honouring ‘the mothers’, powerful older women who can bring great benefits or hardships to their communities, depending on how they are treated. Then masks owned and danced by women in a small area of Sierra Leone and Liberia are discussed. Masks appear in girls’ initiations that prepare young women for marriage and bearing children.

Other masquerades, indeed most of them, are predominantly male institutions. Masks in male initiations among Yaka, Nkanu, and Kuba peoples (in the Democratic Republic of the Congo) are also examined for revealing male and female roles in procreation. Here and elsewhere there are contextual photographs showing mother masks in action.

Kuba Masquerades, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Photograph by David Binkley
Kuba Masquerade Headdress, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Collected by Leo Frobenius, 1905
Museum für Völkerkunde Hamburg

Changing Paradigms

Mmagabo Mmapula Helen Sebidi
'The Child’s Mother Holds the Sharp Edge of the Knife', 1988-89, South Africa
Pastel on Paper
South African National Gallery, Cape Town

The final chapter is devoted to modern and contemporary maternity imagery in comparison to earlier idealised maternities, mostly made by male artists. It examines mothers and children at risk from famine, disease, warfare, drought, domestic violence, and patriarchy under apartheid, among other misfortunes.

This chapter explores a major paradigm shift from glorified images of motherhood over most of African history to greater realism, including emotional expressions of maternal subjectivity. More recent images, some by artists who are mothers, are more naturalistic, with a broader colour palette, and more painting, prints and other two-dimensional forms.

The focus here is southern Africa, where these ‘politics of maternity’ are so marked, but the new imagery, including work by women artists, occurs in most modern nations, so my survey is necessarily yet regrettably brief.

The book’s great emphasis is on earlier forms, often called ‘traditional’ African art, but I have tried here to erase what I consider a false dichotomy between earlier and later eras, as I see a continuum, not a sharp break. Afro-Portuguese ivories, after all, were 16th-century ‘tourist arts’, as were 19th-century Loango ivories.

I have offered here a brief sampling of the wealth of images and ideas examined in considerable detail in this book’s texts and images. What I found during this research is how broad this topic is, and how deep and varied are the metaphors, as giving birth transforms a woman into a mother. The archetypal mother-and-child goes well beyond a mother nurturing her infant and into education and its conversion, another transformation, of children into responsible adults and even to the succession of leaders (Pende, Luba) and the regenerations of entire communities (Igbo, in mbari).

My hope is that others will enjoy, and further explore this remarkably diverse topic and add to its already vast fund of knowledge.

Cole’s new book is available in Europe from Mercatorfonds.com and in the US from Yale University Press.

Herbert M. Cole

Herbert M. Cole, known to many as Skip, taught African art history from 1968-2003 at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He also taught briefly at UCLA and the University of Cape Town, in South Africa. Cole is author, co-author, and editor of eleven books on African arts and 60+ essays and articles. His latest book is Maternity: Mothers and Children in the Arts of Africa, 2017. Four years of African field research centred on southeastern Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, and Ivory Coast. He organised 13 exhibitions of African art at UCLA, UCSB, LACMA, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Mint Museum. In 2001 Cole received a Leadership Award from the Arts Council of the African Studies Association (the professional body for Africanists), a lifetime achievement honour. Cole continues to publish, and he has been a consultant to museums and private collectors. Cole can be reached at scole@arthistory.ucsb.edu.

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