Chapter 3: Themes in African Art

Chapter 3.3 Motherhood

Fig. 261. Young Afenmai woman with a rudimentarily-carved doll. Agbede, Nigeria, early 20th century. Photo by Northcote W. Thomas. From J. A. Hammerton, ed. Peoples of all Nations, vol. 1 (London: Fleetway House, 1922): 163. Public domain.
Fig. 262. This featureless mwana hiti female figure wears the split-lobed hairstyle, a style popular in the late 19th century. Zaramo male artist, Tanzania, 20th century. 6.75″. Private collection.
Fig. 263. This doll has raffia hair worn in a style popular for unmarried girls at the turn of the 20th century. Zulu female artist, South Africa, late 19th/early 20th century. H 7″. Courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 75-9-2. Gift of Ernst Anspach.

To be a mother marks female social completion in Africa. Without it, one is not quite an adult, or certainly not an adult who receives full respect. As Chapter 3.7 indicates, without children one cannot have a traditional funeral nor become an ancestor. While these issues relate to men as well as women, infertile men can acquire children through cooperative wives who ensure they become pregnant; women do not have that option. In practical terms, women who are not mothers may be divorced or have to accept a co-wife. They have no support in their old age, for that is the duty of children, and–if their husband dies–they even may not have a place to live. Even those who are wealthy and self-sufficient suffer if childless. Even those who are unconcerned about financial support or ancestorhood have to endure the pity or mockery of family members, friends, and acquaintances. Babies born after a longed-for conception often bear names that reflect their mothers’ anxiety. These Edo names from Nigeria’s Benin Kingdom are among many examples that reflect joy, triumph, and satisfaction in a successful delivery after the pain of barrenness. They pointedly refer to previous distress and are meant as retorts to those who might have tried to block their pregnancy or had made fun of them: Oghiomwanghaghomwan (“When one’s enemy looks at one”), Omoigiate (“Child protects one from shame”), or Aganmwonyi (“A childless person has no glory”).

Training to be Mothers

Fig. 264. The prominent star and crescent, as well as the title “Alhaji” (one who has been a pilgrim to Mecca), and the mention of the Koran reassure clients that this specialist’s solutions (including barrenness) are in line with Islam. Abeokuta, Nigeria, 2006. Photo by Melvin “Buddy” Baker. Creative Commons CC-BY 2.0.

In many parts of the continent, girls have received doll-like figures to care for–not as playthings when they are children, but as teenagers preparing for marriage (Fig. 261). This sometimes occurs during initiation practices, when their attentiveness may be assessed. Several related matrilineal groups from Tanzania share the tradition of mwana hiti (Fig. 262), a figure a girl receives from a female relative in her father’s family before her initiation seclusion. Alone in a small structure, it serves as her sole companion, and she “feeds” it, washes and oils it, decorates it with seed beads at neck or hips, and otherwise tends it like the infants she hopes to have. All mwana hiti are female, as their breasts indicate, since female children are especially desirable in order to increase the size of the matrilineage. Upon completion of initiation, she emerges

Fig. 265. This chief’s stool is carved with many multiple images of frogs, symbol of fertility and growth. Bamileke male sculptor, Cameroon. H 11.02″. Afrika Museum, Berg en Dal, AM-68-20. From the Congregatie van de Heilige Geest (CSSp.). Creative Commons CC BY-SA 4.0.

to dance, the figure tied around her neck. In the early 20th century, teenage Zulu girls used to carry dolls (Fig. 263), often attached to a cord worn over their shoulder. They initiated romantic relationships by gifting a favored boy with the doll; when apartheid formally began in 1948 and many sweethearts were separated because of migrant labor, young women in the countryside would have studio portraits of themselves holding their dolls, which they would then send to their boyfriends in the city–an effort that created a fictive family for him to concentrate on concerning future marriage plans.

Searching for Motherhood

Fig. 266. This large wooden masquerade headpiece rests on four “legs” that straddle the wearer’s shoulder. Male Baga artist, Guinea-Bissau, 20th century. H 48.82″. Purchased from Charles Ratton in 1957, © The Trustees of the British Museum, Af1957,07.1.a-b. Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Women with conception problems frequently seek help from Western physicians, diviners, and ritual specialists (Fig. 264) or through intercessions with ancestors, deities, or other entities. Sometimes general visual exhortations to fertility exist; rulers’ stools in the Cameroon Grassfields region usually include animal references, and the frog–symbol of fertility and general increase–is a common motif (Fig. 265), since the royal household must grow as well as those of his subjects.

This huge Baga masquerade, known as D’mba (Fig. 266), depicts an older woman who has suckled many children, her breasts now fallen and flattened. Not considered a denizen of the spiritual world, she epitomizes womanhood. Although she appears at the deaths of the prominent and at important secular occasions, D’mba appears in conjunction with agricultural activities and weddings, which suggests general fertility associations. Women throw rice (the chief crop) at her, and men and women alike slap her breasts, a gesture said to enhance fruitfulness.

They might travel to shrines of great repute in order to redress the issue. A particular Kongo nkisi figure (Fig. 267), its activating medicines (see Chapter 3.5) originally sealed off with a mirror, was probably meant to aid those seeking pregnancy. These figures, which may take male, female, or animal forms, are carved to house  a spirit of the dead who will do the bidding of the living; medicines placed in a torso cavity and sealed with a mirror or a shell activate the work, and are prepared to specific recipes that match the power figure’s specific intended purpose. Unless the information about function was recorded at the time of collection, we don’t normally know a figure’s goal. However, in this example, the mirror seems to have lost its silver backing and we can see into the cavity. The medicines within the female figure (her hairstyle indicates gender) include kaolin chalk carved into the form of a mother with a baby, among other ingredients, suggesting fulfillment through maternity.

Fig. 267. This nkisi in female form seems to have been created to encourage conception and healthy delivery. Kongo male artist from Lower Congo River area, Democratic Republic of Congo, late 19th century. H 9.84″. Collectie Wereldmuseum Rotterdam, WM-4075. Creative Commons CC BY-SA 4.0.

In southern Ghana, Akan women (including the Asante and Fante) who had difficulty

Fig. 268. This figure was meant to enable conception and thus increase the matrilineage. Akan male sculptor, Ghana, 1880-1930. Science Museum, London. Creative Commons CC-BY 4.0.

conceiving went to priests who might suggest they have an

Fig. 269. This aku’aba figure was dressed by her “mother.” Akan male artist, Ghana, 1850-1920. © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum, London, A655908. Loan: Wellcome Trust. Creative Commons CC-BY 4.0.

aku’aba figure (Fig. 268) carved and blessed They then carried it tied onto their backs like a real baby. The figures were female, since Akan society is matrilineal, and the family grew and thrived with the birth of girls. They are stained dark, with heads that are usually oversized, circular, and extremely flat, dominated by a forehead that takes up at least half of the face. Most have abstract features consisting of an arching unibrow that unites with a small nose, little or no mouth being indicated. Eyes generally take a coffee-bean form. These features are similar to many of the terracottas used to represent the deceased at funerals (see Chapter 3.7). The flat, large forehead is considered a desirable physical trait, and mothers gently massage infant’s skulls to achieve this. Many aku’aba have long necks bearing a series of parallel, raised ridges; these are the artists’ interpretation of a natural phenomenon seen elsewhere in West Africa–natural creases at the front of the neck (though shown as encircling it) that are considered especially appealing. The oldest figures appear to have been heads and necks attached to a cylinder with tiny breasts. Later, stubby side-stretched arms became standard and then legs became a common feature (Fig. 269).

Fig. 270. A child holding an aku’aba that may have been used to conceive her. Photo by Herbert Vladimir Meyerowitz, 1936-1945. Wellcome Collection. London. Creative Commons CC-BY 4.0.

When pregnancy occurred, the prospective mother continued to carry the aku’aba in order to ensure her child would be healthy and beautiful, just like the figure. After a successful delivery, the mother might take the figure to the shrine where it was dedicated. An accumulation of such figures indicated the shrine solved infertility problems, and ensured other clients would feel reassured by its success rate. Some mothers, however, kept their figures and might give them to children as playthings. Although they did not begin their lives as dolls, that could be the end result (Fig. 270).

Fig. 271. St. Anthony holding Christ. This example is more naturalistic than some, both in the face and the folds of the robes. Kongo male artist, Democratic Republic of Congo, 18th century. H 18.5″. Wereld-Museum, Rotterdam, RV-3147-1. Creative Commons CC BY-SA 4.0.

Figurative Christian aids to conception also existed. Catholicism has had a periodic impact on the Kongo since the late 15th century (see Chapter 4.2). Associated artworks include numerous crucifixes as well as Madonna images, but depictions of saints are clearly dominated by a particular individual: St. Anthony of Padua. While St. Anthony was born in Portugal, and it was the Portuguese who first brought Catholicism to the area, this does not explain his dominance, particularly since missionaries from many other countries came to the region. Although known in the United States as the saint who is entreated to find lost objects, his associations in Europe are quite different. He is implored by maidens who seek a husband, and–probably his chief attraction for the Kongo–his intercession will bring children to the barren. A church at the Kongo capital was named for him, as was a brotherhood of laypersons, and he appeared on pendants and other art objects. Usually depicted in his Franciscan robes, holding the infant Christ and a book (for Christ would appear to him while reading), his image would have stood in Kongo churches or homes as a focal point for prayers for pregnancy. The museum that owns one example (Fig. 271) recorded that it was handed down within a family and used “in fertility rituals.” St. Anthony was so venerated that a Kongo female royal, Dona Beatriz, claimed she was his reincarnation when she made a bid to reunite all the Kongo kingdoms under her leadership in the 18th century.

Woman as Vessel: Pregnancy

Fig. 272. The capacity of this palm wine cup is increased significantly by the fullness of the belly. Wongo male artist, Democratic Republic of Congo, late 19th/early 20th century. H 9.75″. Purchased from Emil Torday. Courtesy University of Pennsylvania Museum of Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, AF1943.
Fig. 273. Series of carved pregnant women on a doorframe in a palace interior. Bamileke male artist, Cameroon. Photo by Pierre Harter, taken between 1956 and 1991. Musée du Quai Branly, PP0136715.
Fig. 274. This wooden sculpture’s shoulders are swollen, complementing its belly. Bamileke male artist, Cameroon, before 1934. Henri Labouret Mission. H 32.38″. Musée du Quai Branly, 1.1934.171.609.

If numerous art forms to encourage pregnancy exist, images of pregnancy itself are less common. Sometimes sculptures allude to gravidity by showing a woman’s hands on her gently swelling stomach, but late pregnancy is occasionally depicted. This Wongo palm wine cup (Fig. 272) is likely a visual pun linking the concept of woman as a container to an actual vessel.

The one area where unambiguous pregnancy is actually unexceptional is the Grassfields region of Cameroon, home to numerous related ethnic groups. Here a palace door surround’s imagery might solely consist of pregnant women (Fig. 273) and freestanding figures often represent the same condition (Fig. 274).

Fig. 275. This male performer at a Gelede masquerade performance is dressed as a pregnant woman. Her head sits on his in cap-like fashion, while cloth covers his face. The color of the wooden breast-and-belly plate matches the cloth that covers his forearms. Yoruba male artist, Togo. Single frame of “Gelede mask Togo Africa” by voodooalpaca, 2008.

Two far-flung ethnic groups, the Yoruba and the Makonde, perform masquerades by male dancers performing as pregnant women. These are not the focus of either performance, but represent one human type among many roles. The dancers from both cultures accomplish this by wearing not only a headpiece, but a body plate that includes both breasts and belly (Fig. 275). Both are lifelike in proportion, offering a smooth expanse that can be enlivened by tattoos or scarification, depending on the origin (Fig. 276). Makonde examples occasionally even include the linea nigra, or pregnancy line, for greater verisimilitude. 


Fig. 276. Left, Gelede masquerade “tattooed” breast-and-belly plate. H 16.34″. Yoruba male artist, Nigeria, 20th century. Afrika Museum Berg en Dal, AM-555-2. Creative Commons CC BY-SA 4.0. Right, wooden torso plate of a pregnant woman bearing scarifications or tattoos. H. 23″. Makonde male artist, Tanzania, 20th century. Indianapolis Museum of Art, 2001.413. Gift of Thomas D. Slater in memory of Professor Roy Sieber. Public domain.
Fig. 277. This figure may have been used protectively to ensure a safe delivery. Zombo, Angola, 19th century. © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum, A642971. Loan from Wellcome Trust. Creative Commons CC-BY 4.0.


Depictions of imminent or actual childbirth are fairly rare throughout the world, and have been so throughout history, although exceptions certainly occur. In Africa, these can show the partial emergence of the child, whether in the

Fig. 278. At the lower right, a woman in the act of delivering serves as one of this carving’s caryatid figures. The vertical scarifications on her forehead and that of some other figures, as well as the top hat, suggest a Urhobo male artist made this in 19th-century Nigeria, though other aspects link the work to peoples living further north along the Niger River. From G.-J. Witkowski’s Histoire des accouchements chez tous les peuples (Paris: G. Steinheil,1887). Wellcome Collection, London. Creative Commons CC-BY 4.0.

constructed setting of a maternity clinic, as in some Igbo mbari houses, or as stand-alone figures such as this Zombo sculpture (Fig. 277). The latter realistically shows the remaining swollen belly, the facial expression stylizing the pain of the moment in a gesture the neighboring Chokwe use to indicate surprise. Sometimes delivery is merely part of the panoply of life a multi-figure work includes (Fig. 278).

Fig. 279. Two views of a terracotta made by an artist whose gender and ethnicity are unknown, examined through medical imaging. Jenne-Jeno, Mali, 13th-14th century. H 14.17″; L 12.6″. The original is in the Barbier-Mueller Museum, INV 1004-95. This image is a single frame of “Scrofulous Sogolon; Scanning the Sunjata Epic,” a video by Anne-Marie Bouttiaux and Marc Ghysels, 2015. The figure can be virtually rotated here.

Some of the most unusual childbirth scenes have been found at the deserted city of Jenne-Jeno in Mali, unfortunately without context since they were excavated illegally. One shows a woman delivering a snake (Fig. 279), her mouth in an atypically stretched rictus of pain. Another snake emerges from one ear, and breakage suggests an additional serpent exited the other ear as well.

Snakes appear with great frequency in the terracotta sculpture of Jenne-Jeno. Sometimes they appear to attack individuals, squiggling aggressively over their bodies and heads. At other times, an individual has a snake or snakes resting on them, yet their posture shows only co-existence and indifference. The snakes suggest the powers of a ritual specialist that may be sent out after a victim or stay at hand, waiting for a task. That a woman is giving birth to a snake, however, seems outside this interpretation unless we are witnessing a mythological occurrence or a snake as the representation of a person of power. There has been a suggestion that certain Jenne-Jeno images, this included, relate to the Sunjata epic and the founding of the Mali Empire. If so, the snake may represent Sunjata’s birth.

Fig. 280. Two views of a terracotta sculpture examined through medical imaging; the view at right reveals the figures inside.Artist’s gender and ethnicity unknown, Jenne-Jeno, Mali, 13th-14th century. H 9″. The original is in the New Orleans Museum of Art, 90.196. Museum purchase, Robert P. Gordy Fund. This image is a single frame from “Scrofulous Sogolon; Scanning the Sunjata Epic,” a video by Anne-Marie Bouttiaux and Marc Ghysels, 2015. The object can be virtually rotated here.

Certainly mystical snakes appear in other Jenne-Jeno terracottas in connection with human sacrifice. One snake is shown with human feet sticking out of its mouth before a final swallow–the size ratio indicating an unnatural occurrence. Another depicts a shrine or other structure encircled by giant serpents who are about to enter; a human arm reaches out from the sealed door (Fig. 280). Medical imaging revealed that the interior of the building is neither solid nor hollow. Instead, it is filled with seven small decapitated clay female figures, several of whom are pregnant.

Fig. 281. Terracotta figure pair. Artist’s gender and ethnicity unknown, Jenne-Jeno, Mali, 13th-14th century. H 8.25″ x W 9 5/8″ x D 6 3/8″. With the gracious permission of the Saint Louis Art Museum, 1668:1983. Funds given in memory of Morton D. May and Friends Fund.

Yet another Djenne sculpture depicts one of the most unusual subjects in African art (Fig. 281). Not only do we see a woman about to give birth, stretched out horizontally, we see her in the company of her husband, who supports her shoulder and bends solicitously over her; he is non-frontal. In most African cultures before the advent of Western doctors, it has been traditional to exclude men from the birth process. Either a midwife or experienced woman assists in birth; some women have given birth on their own, particularly if away from others at a farm. If these features were not enough to make the work distinctive, when at a New York auction house to be put up for sale it was discovered that the tiny figure of a baby was placed inside the “womb,” suggesting the work may have had a mystical purpose related to childbirth–invisible aspects of African artwork are often related to ritual practices.

Mother and Child

Fig. 282. This reddened wooden figure holds a baby whose drawn-up limbs emphasize action. Eastern Pende male artist, Democratic Republic of Congo, early 20th century. H: 35.5″. Detroit Institute of Art, 2011.130. Gift of Margaret H. Demant. Public domain.
Fig. 283. This figure is used in rituals relating to newborn twins. Bamileke male artist, Cameroon, 19th century. H 30.7″. Formerly in the collection of Pierre Harter. Musée du Quai Branly, 73.1994.11.1.

Maternity figures are among the most common sculptural types found in Africa, attesting to the critical importance of motherhood. Their various functions may differ, but there are relatively few variations in pose and activity.

Many depictions show breastfeeding, the child held in the arms (Fig. 282) or on the lap (Fig. 283). These two figures have distinct uses: the Eastern Pende example was probably flanked one of the doors of a high chief’s kibulu ritual structure, a place of great secrecy that was inaccessible to most. She (along with a second figure, probably male) was attached to a panel and served as a spirit sentry to protect the ruler from malevolent rivals. The presence of the child shows she is a complete, mature woman. Slightly larger sculptures can decorate the kibulu roof peak; these can take many forms, but since the mid-20th century the maternity figure has been the most popular. The Bamileke figure served a different purpose. Although some similar figures commemorate important individual women in the royal family, those works normally include more jewelry to emphasize their status. This figure appears to have been brought out at court whenever twins were born. Their presentation before the sculpture was accompanied by a sacrifice. Twins are viewed as having special powers of good fortune and healing, and, after infancy, one was sent to the palace to serve the ruler (among the neighboring Bamum, both were sent). There twins had multiple roles, including special participation in a ruler’s installation of a ruler and as guardians of the royal burial sites. Their parents took on a special title, operating as priests or diviners.

Despite the physical bond of breastfeeding, most sculptures that depict it show figures who are not looking at one another, a feature shared with most other maternity images. This does not imply any actual lack of interaction or affection, but is merely a convention to convey dignity and self-control. The rarity of mother and child eye-contact makes its occasional appearance startling (Fig. 284). This dynamic sculpture does portray a seated royal

Fig. 284. This sculpture shows Fon N’Jiké’s wife with his first child. Kwayep of Bamane was the Bamileke sculptor who created it in Cameroon at some point between the late 19th century and 1912. H 24″. Henri Labouret Mission. Musée du Quai Branly, 71.1934.171.607.

woman nursing, yet she turns her body towards the baby and looks directly at him, creating a sight line that unites them even more than her encircling arm and breast milk. Like many Bamileke works, it is infused with vigor, here created by the non-frontal posture, asymmetry, and the series of

Fig. 285. This dynamic figure, its emphasis on repeating diagonal thrusts, probably represents the Great Mother, a spiritual entity, suckling an initiate with the milk of knowledge. Senufo male artist, Côte d’Ivoire, late 19th/early 20th century. H 25 1/16″.Cleveland Museum of Art 1961.198. James Albert and Mary Gardiner Ford Memorial Fund. Public domain; Creative Commons 0.

diagonals created by the thighs and lower legs, the lifted foot, and the bent arms. The energy created by the lines can be seen from every angle, and the not fully smoothed surface adds to the work’s vitality. This sculpture was created by a known artist–Kwayep–on the ruler’s commission. It depicts one

Fig. 286. This figure was probably carried by members of the female Tyekpa society during their funerary celebrations. The child’s head is featureless, his body rigid. Senufo male artist, Côte d’Ivoire, 19th or 20th century. H. 29.92″. Afrika Museum Berg en Dal, AM-43-9. Formerly Congregatie van de Heilige Geest (CSSp.). Creative Commons CC BY-SA 4.0..

of the royal wives first child for the monarch, and would have been commissioned not just because of any affection he may have felt, but because Bamileke rulers were not fully recognized and allowed to use their title of “Fon” until they had had a son and a daughter while in office. Statues of royal wives and mothers were exhibited outside the palace during major court ceremonies, and possession of sculptures and other art objects added to the status of the Fon.

Sometimes the identities of mothers are ambiguous. While the nursing mother in a Senufo sculpture may appear to represent a human mother, some Central Senufo maternity figures represent Katyeleeo or Maleeo (Fig. 285). This Great Mother/Ancient Woman is the female aspect of deity whom the Poro men’s society honors during initiation (including a passage through a tunnel likened to her birth canal). As members of the Poro, they may state that they are “about their Mother’s business.” In works from this tradition, the “child” is the initiate, drinking in the Great Mother’s wisdom.

That is not, however, the meaning of all Senufo maternity images. The Fodonon Senufo (for the Senufo, spread out over three countries, incorporate many distinct populations such as the Fodonon) have a female secret society known as Tyekpa that acts as a counterpart to Poro. Like Poro, Tyekpa plays a significant role in its members’ funerals, a time when sculpture enhances the prestige of the deceased and the women’s society to which she belonged, just as it does for male funerals where Poro officiates. Tyekpa figures, which are comparable in size to Poro sculptures, are carried aloft by members and displayed; multiple figure types are not restricted to a nursing mother, but these are a common category. It is unclear whether the Tyekpa nursing figure (Fig. 286) represents the Great Mother or not; some other Tyekpa figures represent champion farmers, young women, and other members of the citizenry, and she may be a human mother.

Incomplete information hinders understanding of some maternity figures. Although many may be indications of the value placed on fertility, others, such as Senufo Poro figures, do not refer to human mothers at all. While the Jenne-Jeno terracotta figure of a woman bearing a snake may be human–albeit with a supernaturally-charged “child”–another Jenne-Jeno figure seems likely to be an otherworld being (Fig. 287). Initially, this sculpture may appear to be an ordinary kneeling mother with two slightly older children scrambling over her, but one of the children has a beard and wears trousers–they are clearly adults, despite their juvenile behavior. The mother remains impassive, despite the snake crawling over her shoulder–her nonchalance seems to speak to her familiarity with spiritual forces. Her hold on dignity is challenged by the fact that she is not frontal; her head inclines slightly to one side, for each son grabs the handle of a forked implement that grasps her ear. The instrument is a blacksmith’s pincers, the tool he uses to grip and draw red-hot metal.

Fig. 287. Two views of an illicitly-excavated terracotta depicting a woman with two miniature male adults on her lap. The artist’s gender and ethnicity are unknown. Jenne-Jeno, Mali, 13th-14th century. H 15 1/8″. Formerly in the collection of Count Baudouin de Grunne.
Fig. 288. This child is decorously sitting on its mother’s knee, its long body and small head belying the proportions of infancy. Dogon male artist, Bandiagara Circle, Mali, 17th-20th century (likely 19th c.). H; 21 7/8″. Photo by Paul Hester. Courtesy The Menil Collection, Houston, X873.
Fig. 289. This serene mother is perfectly groomed, with torso scarifications, knee bands that draw the eye to her calves, a loincloth , and neatly dressed hair. Her child was not the sculptor’s focus. Anyi male artist, Côte d’Ivoire, late 19th/early 20th century. H 19″. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 2000.3. Arthur and Margaret Glasgow Fund. Creative Commons CC-BY-NC..

The identity of this huge woman who towers over men, enfolds them in her protective embrace, and suffers their antics is uncertain. Because of its location along the Niger River, Jenne-Jeno was an important walled trade city that drew multiple ethnic groups and was part of both the Ghana and Mali Empires. Occupied by at least 200 BCE, it was deserted ca. 1400 for reasons that remain unclear, and a new town of Jenne arose less than two miles away. We don’t know the ethnicity or gender of the terracotta artists, nor if they departed from the immediate area or converted to Islam and stopped making figures as a result.

Some scholars see stylistic links between the terracottas of Jenne Jenne and works by Dogon artists (Fig. 288), who live about 128 miles away. Although oral history states the Dogon migrated to their present home centuries ago, their linguistic relationship is with the Senufo and other Gur language group members to their south. Jenne today is home to Songhai, Bozo, Bamana, Fulani and other peoples; the Bozo and Bamana are Mande peoples, and blacksmithing has special associations to them, as well as to their Gur and Senufo neighbors. All these regional ethnicities are casted societies. Smithing is a hereditary, casted profession with associated social roles involving spiritual powers and supernatural manipulation, and seems to have been in place by the 13th century, perhaps coalescing at the beginning of the Mali Empire. Mande blacksmiths state they have an origin that differs from that of other Mande, and, although they speak Mande, they retain their own vocabulary in a distinctly different tongue.

Could this Jenne-Jeno sculpture refer to mythical beginnings for blacksmiths? Bamana and other belief systems about foundational  myths vary from region to region, and deepen as one advances within men’s societies, but some of the many stories about primordial beings refer to Muso Kuroni, the original woman, a creator who also embodies chaos, and who is identified with sorcery. Ndomajiri, the first blacksmith, is also the stuff of myths, the stable counterpart of chaos and master of ritual medicine. While we cannot be certain that this female figure is somehow the “Mother of the Blacksmiths”, that she is a spiritual entity with some kind of blacksmith connection is supported by evidence within the piece itself. Knowledge of its original placement–a shrine? a blacksmith’s forge?–would have provided further context, but unfortunately is unretrievable.

Fig. 290. This maternity figure, with its asymmetrical mouth, supports her child with an elongated but loving arm. It would have belonged to the ruler. Mbala male artist, Democratic Republic of Congo, late 19th–early 20th century. H 10 1/8″. Dallas Museum of Art, 1969.S.149. The Clark and Frances Stillman Collection of Congo Sculpture; gift of Eugene and Margaret McDermott. Public domain.
Fig. 291. This woman and her backed child probably represent a spirit spouse, the baby–unintentionally or not–taunting the human wife; it could also represent a nature spirit. The otherworld woman has beautifully arranged hair, careful facial and torso scarifications, and a rounded body with glowing “skin.” Baule male artist, Cote d’Ivoire, last quarter 19th century. H 17.52″. Courtesy University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 29-12-68.


Most maternity images, even when they represent otherworld entities such as Baule spirit spouses, are more generic in appearance. Women are shown with children as evidence of their completion of adult responsibilities and their assured place in the world.

Fig. 292. While his mother–her breasts flattened by the carrying cloth–pounds food in a mortar, this baby looks curiously around him. This Epa helmet mask would have been one of a series used in an annual festival to honor town founders, both male and female. Yoruba male artist, Ekiti region, Nigeria, 1870-1920. Exhibited at the British Empire Exhibition 1924. Science Museum, London, A37289. Loan from Wellcome Collection. Creative Commons CC-BY 4.0.




The appearance of their children is an accessory that proves their worth and reinforces their status; the child is a necessary but minor player in the visual world. Children may be held laterally (Fig. 289), sit on the lap,  be on a hip (Fig. 290), or be carried on the back (Fig. 291). Most children find backing soothing, as they can hear their mother’s heartbeat clearly. While many babies are silent accessories, artists assign others greater prominence. Carved Yoruba babies seem interested in the world around them, frequently straining against their carrying cloth in order to obtain a better view (Fig. 292).

Fig. 293. Four adults relax while four children of varying ages run, play or interact with their mothers. Children are rendered here as miniature adults, without the large heads that mark actual toddlers. Drawing of a rock painting by an unknown artist of unknown ethnicity and gender in the Ozaneare area of the Tassili n’Ajjer region, Algeria, Pastoralist Period, ca. 5500-2000 BCE.

Most images of mothers with their children show them either as infants or toddlers, and are formal in their poses. Some of the earliest depictions of mothers, however, depict a range of children’s ages, as well as clearly playful behavior and interaction. A Sahara rock painting, for example, shows a crawling child as well as his older companions. Despite the silhouette approach, their body language conveys actions and interactions still visible in every family (Fig. 293). Other Sahara images from the same era show a mother laying on her back, raising her child up in an exuberant gesture, or two juveniles standing next to an adult and holding hands.

Fig. 294. Section of a drawing of an ivory tusk from a Benin royal altar, depicting two images of a Queen Mother protectively flanking Oba Ewuakpe in divine fish-legged form. Tusk created by an Edo male artist, Benin Kingdom, Nigeria, 19th century. Courtesy University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, AF5067.
Fig. 295. This mother and child figure are modeled in clay as part of a large tableau of figures centered around Olokun, god of the sea and wealth. They represent one of his queens and her child. Edo female artist, Benin Kingdom, Nigeria, 20th century. Photo by Kathy Curnow, 1994.

Another notable exception to maternity imagery is found in Nigeria’s Benin Kingdom. While its Edo royal court artists did represent the Iyoba, or Queen Mother, in ivory and brass, she was usually sculpted either alone or with her girl pages. She appears with her son only on the ivory tusks that decorated royal ancestral altars (see Chapter 3.7), but he is depicted as a reigning adult, not as a baby or child. She flanks her son, her image duplicated to preserve symmetry (Fig. 294). Her presence is protective; on some other tusks, she holds mystical mirrors that deflect harm directed at her son. Other kinds of maternity images did not occur in Benin court art, although the large unfired clay images that form altars to Olokun, the deity of the sea and riches, often represent one or more of his wives holding a baby (Fig. 295), a more conventional way of showing the maternal bond and continuity of the lineage, whether human or supernatural.






Further Reading

Blackmun, Barbara. “Who Commissioned the Queen Mother Tusks?: A Problem in the Chronology of Benin Ivories.” African Arts 24 (2, 1991): 54-65, 90-91.

Bouttiaux, Anne-Marie and Marc Ghysels. “Scrofulous Sogolon: Scanning the Sunjata Epic.” Tribal Art 19 (2, no. 75, 2015): 88-123.

Cole, Herbert M. Icons: Ideals and Power in the Arts of Africa. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989.

Cole, Herbert M. Maternity: mothers and children in the arts of Africa. Antwerp: Mercatorfonds, 2017.

Curnow, Kathy. At Home in Africa: Design, Beauty and Pleasing Irregularity in Domestic Settings. Cleveland, OH: The Galleries at CSU, 2014.

Drewal, Henry J. and Margaret Drewal. Gelede: Art and Female Power among the Yoruba. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1983.

Felix, Marc Leo. Mwana Hiti: Life and Art of the Matrilineal Bantu of TanzaniaMunich: Fred Jahn, 1990.

Gagliardi, Susan Elizabeth. Senufo Unbound: Dynamics of Art and Identity in West Africa. Cleveland: Cleveland Museum of Art, 2014.

Glaze, Anita. “Woman Power and Art in a Senufo Village.” African Arts 8 (3, 1975): 24-29, 64-68, 90-91.

Grunne, Bernard de. Djenné-Jeno: 1000 Years of Terracotta Statuary in MaliBrussels: Mercatorfonds, 2014.

Homberger, Lorenz, ed. Cameroon: Art and Kings. Zurich: Museum Rietberg, 2008.

Jolles, Frank. African Dolls/Afrikanische Puppen: The Dulger Collection. Stuttgart: Arnoldsche, 2011.

Lamp, Frederick. Art of the Baga: A Drama of Cultural Reinvention. New York: The Museum for African Art, 1996.

MacGaffey, Wyatt. Astonishment and Power. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993.

McNaughton, Patrick R. The Mande Blacksmiths: Knowledge, Power, and Art in West Africa. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1988.

Ross, Doran H. “Akua’s child and other relatives: new mythologies for old dolls.” In Elisabeth L. Cameron. Isn’t s/he a doll?: play and ritual in African sculpture, pp. 42-57. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 1996.

Sieber, Roy and Roslyn Walker. African Art in the Cycle of Life. Washington, DC: National Museum of African Art, 1987.

Strother, Z. S. “Eastern Pende Constructions of Secrecy.” In Mary H. Nooter, ed. Secrecy: African Art that Conceals and Reveals, pp. 156-178. New York: The Museum for African Art, 1993.

Thornton, John. The Kongolese Saint Anthony: Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita and the Antonian Movement, 1684-1706. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998.