African Mothers - African maternity figures
Online Exhibition Main Page
Mother and child
Bamun Kingdom, Cameroon
Princess Ngutane cradles her firstborn son, Amidou
Mounde, who was born in 1915
Photograph - Horniman Museum London
Maternity figure from Tanzania
A Fante mother carrying her child in a
wrapper on her back.
Photograph by Doran H. Ross
Legu, Ghana, 1976
Maternity figures in African culture

In almost all African societies, the most important role of women is to bear children. Whatever else – farming, cooking, or their role in women’s
associations – their primary responsibility is to produce and nurture children. It is, as Cole puts it, a “biological imperative” or, as Dennis Warren states, a
“cultural duty" (1974, 2.37). Indeed, certain groups, such as the !Kung, "do not consider a marriage consummated until the birth of a child" (Fried and
Fried 1980, 29).

A person who has no descendants in effect quenches the fire of life, and becomes forever dead since his line of physical continuation is blocked if he
does not get married and bear children
" (Mbiti 1969, 133).

Unhappy is the woman who fails to get children for, whatever other qualities she might possess, her failure to bear children is worse than community
genocide: she has become the dead end of human life, not only for the genealogical line but also for herself. . . . the childless wife bears a scar which
nothing can erase. She will suffer for this, her own relatives will suffer for this: and it will be an irreparable humiliation for which there is no source of
comfort in traditional life.

In such a setting, it is not surprising to find great numbers of images of women with children in Africa. The earliest known are several terracottas from Nok
in northern Nigeria possibly dating as early as the sixth century B.C. Bernard Fagg writes, "There are two or three pieces, and the frieze of figures . . .
which may possibly be representing the concept of motherhood" (1977, 38). The frieze has "repetitive modelling of what is probably a 'mother and child'

Images of women holding children may reflect a number of ideas, for example, they may represent ancestors and serve as "symbols of lineage or clan
forbears, the generalized and incarnate dead" (Cole 1985, 8). It can only be conjectured that the Djenne example with its "mother" and adult "children"
may be an instance of such a meaning.

In most cases, the child or children are not identifiable; indeed, they are often amorphous or even caricatural in form. William Fagg refers to the "unwritten
law on the portrayal of mothers and children in sculpture, a law so general that it must surely have a philosophical basis. This is the rule that children are
not given a personality or character of their own, but are treated as extensions of their mother's personality" (in Vogel 1981, 1x4).

Others, such as Vogel, note:
Because children are not fully "civilized" (or socialized), productive members of society, their depiction in art makes little sense. Infants, in contrast, often
appear in a secondary role, representing the productivity of the mother. To cite a parallel from life, one often sees a woman dressed up and carrying a
child (not necessarily her own) as a sort of costume accessory. A woman looks better with a baby. (1980, 13)

Thus we come at once to a major contrast between African maternity images and Christian images of Mary and the Christ child. In the latter, the primary
focus is on the infant, and the mother is definitely a secondary figure. This is clearly the reverse of the roles of child and mother in African examples. The
child, as a symbol of maternity, supports and reinforces the role of the mother as genetrix for the family and the group.
Examples are known where the mother is standing , kneeling, or sitting; the child may be suckling or may be held on the lap or carried on the back, and
there may be more than one child. In contrast, scenes of birth are rare, and the rituals surrounding birth rarely make use of sculpture.

Henry Drewal (1978, 564) has pointed out that among the arts of the Yoruba, "Mothers shown nursing or carrying children represent the long weaning
period (approximately two years), a time of sexual abstinence and suppressed menstruation . . . which is seen as a state of purity or ritual cleanliness."
Elsewhere he states, "Pregnant and nursing women achieve a state related to that of elder women," who are past menopause and therefore free of the
pollution of menses. Thus mother and child images denote a state of natural purity; for during the long nursing period . . . when the child is carried on the
back, a woman's menstruation is suppressed and she practices sexual abstinence. . . . Thus images of women in ritual contexts and mother and child
figures represent much more than symbols of fertility. They communicate sexual abstinence, inner cleanliness, ritual purity, female forces and spirituality.

Some Yoruba figures are shown kneeling, "a position of respect, devotion, and even submission to the gods. This posture is appropriate [because] most
women in Yoruba sculptures represent royal wives or worshippers, not gods themselves" (Cole 1985, 19).

It is evident that although the specific meaning of images of maternity may vary from group to group and be associated with nature deities, ancestors, the
group genetrix, or divination, they all ultimately and surely refer to human fertility and the future of the group that is grounded in that fertility.

There are images that are specifically approached when a woman wants to conceive. Such images are found on Yoruba doors or as shrine images in
Ghana in the town of Anyinabrem where the sculpture of a mother suckling a baby was visible and, "when barren patients come to the shrine and see this
statue they know the god can help them to get a child" (Warren 1974, 386).

Much more common in southern Ghana among several groups are akua'ba images, which are believed to relate directly to human fertility. These may be
used by a priestess, as Warren reports (ibid., 388), to help barren women have children, or they may be carried by a woman after she conceives to
ensure that she will have a healthy and handsome child. Others, quite similar in form, may help a woman "keep" a child that has been born several times
but has not lived. It is believed that the intervention of the fertility deity will ensure a successful birth.
Roy Seiber

From: African Art in the Cycle of Life
It is a simple online exhibition showing maternity figures from various cultures in Africa that are in my collection, and some from other
collections. I hope that people will enjoy it, I'd like to do similar projects to this in the future.
Click on any image or link underneath the image to see examples of maternity figures from these cultures.
You will find the greatest range of maternity figures in the "Maternity figures from various cultures page"
Yombe Phemba maternity figure
Asante akua'ba doll
Baga Nimba or D'mba
from the Pollzzie Collection

The Nimba represents the mother of
fertility, protector of pregnant women, and
presides over all agricultural ceremonies.
Lobi Bateba Bétise figures

Statuettes depicting a man and a woman
making love which are prescribed for women to
avoid sterility or who wished to have a child.
From various collections, books and online sources
Djenne, Asante, Afo, Yoruba, Bamileke, Kongo,
Musurongo, Bena Lulua, Ethiopia, Fon, Yaka,
Igbo, Pende and Senufo and many, many more.
There are a LOT of images on this page
Bamana maternity figure - Gwandusu
from the Geller Collection
Angi maternity figure
from the Geller Collection
Ere Ibeji figures - Yoruba

Even though these figures are commissioned for the death of a child, there is
still a relationship between the figures and the mothers since the figures are
clothed, washed and cared for by the mother just as a normal child would be.
Yoruba Gelede headdress with 3 birds (mother and her children)

Although Gelede headdresses represent women and are danced in
ceremonies to honor elders and ancestors, "our mothers", they are
danced by men.
Mende Sowei society mask and dancer
Mende Sowei mask of the Sande society
In sub-Saharan Africa only men are normally
permitted on ritual occasions to wear wooden
masks. This black helmet mask is worn exclusively
by women for various purposes.
Rand African Art
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