Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Asante Akua'ba Doll

ASANTE (ACHANTI, ASHANTE, ASHANTI) Ghana

The Asante Akua'ba Doll
Asante akua’ba
The legend of the origination of the Akua'ba doll comes from the story of a woman named "Akua" (many variations of the name are found as there are many variations of the spelling of "akua'ba") who could not get pregnant and went to a local diviner or priest and commissioned the carving of a small wooden doll. She carried and cared for the doll as if it were her own child, feeding it, bathing it and so on. Soon the people in the village started calling it "Akua" "ba" - 
meaning "Akua's child", since "ba" meant child. She soon became pregnant and her daughter grew up with the doll.

The legend and tradition still live on today...

If an Akan/Asante woman had difficulty conceiving she would be encouraged to visit a local shrine accompanied by a senior woman in her family. There she might purchase a figure such as this, which would be placed for a period on the altar, later to be reclaimed by the woman along with certain medicines. The sculpture was then carried, fed, bathed, and otherwise cared for by the woman as if it was a living baby. It was thought that in doing this the woman would have a better chance to have a healthy and beautiful baby. Once the woman conceived and had a successful delivery, she would return the figure to the shrine as a form of offering. If the child died, the akua’ba might be kept by the woman as a memorial.

The symbolism of these dolls is specific: “The flat, disk like head is a strongly exaggerated conception of the Akan ideal of beauty:


The Asante Akua'ba Doll
Asante akua’ba doll (Ghana)
Round or oval shaped heads are considered ideal and this is accomplished in actual practice by the gently modeling of an infant’s soft cranial bones. The flat profile of these figures is also more practical when they are carried against the back wrapped in the woman’s skirt. Also standard is the ringed neck, a convention for rolls of fat and hence 
beauty and prosperity…the small scars seen on the faces of many akua’ba are those made for medicinal purposes as protection against convulsions. Most Asante akua’ba have abstracted, horizontal arms and a cylindrical torso with breasts and a navel, but ending in a base rather than human legs.

Sources: Sotheby's, AFRICA - The Art of A Continent, The Royal Art of Africa, and 


Friday, September 14, 2012

The Baga Nimba at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NY

Headdress, 19th–20th century
Baga peoples; Guinea
Wood; H. 46 1/2 in. (118.1 cm)

The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979 (1979.206.17)

This colossal wooden headdress, measuring nearly four feet in height, is known as D'mba among the Baga peoples of the Guinea coast. D'mba's flat, pendant breasts are a symbol of motherhood and reveal the selfless dedication with which she has nursed numerous children to adulthood. Her coiffure consists of intricately braided rows of hair and a high crest down the center. 

This hairstyle is not a characteristic of the Baga, but rather one of the Fulbe people, who inhabit the Futa Jallon mountains, where the Baga ancestors once lived. 

The coiffure serves as a reminder to the Baga of their origins in the Futa Jallon. The face, neck, and breasts of the bust are decorated with linear patterns: a horizontal line from the cheek to the ear, a curved line from the ear along the jawline, a line connecting these two lines, all ending at a circular line that surrounds the entire face. Often on each cheek, just below the eyes, there are two short carved lines—the mark of Baga ethnicity. Embellishments are sometimes added as well, including painted wooden ornaments attached to the ear or pendants attached to the nasal septum.


Shoulder Mask (Nimba) Guinea
Late 19th -early 20th century
Wood 45 in. (114.3 cm)
Unlike masked representations from other African cultures, which may represent ethereal spirits or ancestors, D'mba is not a "spirit," but instead is loosely described by the Baga themselves as simply an "idea." D'mba is an abstraction of the ideal of the female role in Baga society. She is honored as the universal mother and is the vision of woman at the zenith of her power, beauty, and affective presence. Although D'mba is not a spiritual being in the Baga sense of the term, nor a deity, she is a being of undeniable spiritual power. The Baga conceive of D'mba as a servant of sorts—inspiring young women with the strength to bear children and raise them to adulthood, inspiring young men to cooperative excellence in agriculture, and inspiring the ancestors to contribute toward the continuance of community well-being.

During performances, the massive headdress is worn with a costume of raffia and cloth. In the past, the D'mba masquerade was performed at least twice a year before the rainy seasons. D'mba would also appear to dance at festive occasions such as marriages and funerals, and in honor of special guests. In contemporary Baga culture, D'mba performances have not been as widely embraced as in the past, so they are rarely witnessed today.

The origins of the D'mba headdress, like many other aspects of Baga material culture, remain the subject of conjecture. Most Baga elders suggest that D'mba was not brought by their nomadic ancestors, but rather created after their arrival to their current home in Guinea's coastal region. Interestingly enough, the cloth shawl worn by D'mba during performances, usually dark indigo or black, has always been cotton cloth imported from Europe, never of African manufacture. In fact, it seems that many Baga masquerades developed in the twentieth century use European factory printed cloth for the costume.

Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art

Saturday, September 08, 2012

African Maternity Figures

Akan brass maternity figure on stool
Akan brass maternity figure on stool
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, “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' 
motif".

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.
Afo Maternity Figure (Nigeria 19th Century) wood
Afo Maternity Figure
(Nigeria 19th Century) wood

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.


Akan Maternity Figure - Ghana -Mid-late 20th century
Akan Maternity Figure - Ghana
Mid-late 20th century
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 worshipers, 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
Article from the Rand African Art website - Denver, Colorado