|Afo peoples, Nigeria, 19th century|
Figures representing a mother and child seem to occur less frequently than other subjects, such as chiefs or warriors on horseback, reclining or kneeling females, or animals, especially snakes. The meaning of these ancient maternity figures is unknown. Perhaps such figures served as symbols of the primordial mother or another mythical figure in the history of a clan in which the sculpture originated. Regrettably, the stratigraphic context in which most of these objects have been discovered and other pertinent data are unknown. Even so, it is possible to date the objects.
The proliferation of decorative details on the figure includes serpents, which are depicted as zigzags. Snakes commonly occur in the visual arts as well as in the oral traditions of numerous peoples of the inland delta region. Snakes play an important role in the cosmology and mythical origins of the clan. For example, snakes are king makers, designating the successful candidate by touching him with the nose. Snakes are often considered to be symbols of immortality throughout sub-Saharan Africa because they "renew" themselves by shedding their skin.
|Asante group, Akan peoples, Ghana|
19th-20th century (wood)
This figure does not depict an ordinary mother. Rather, as indicated by her elevated sandaled feet, the figure represents a queen mother as she would sit in state on formal occasions. Such royal maternity figures were kept with the venerated seats of ancestral chiefs in special rooms, or they were housed in the shrines of powerful deities that were particularly concerned with the well-being of a royal person, perhaps a queen mother.
According to Yoruba belief, children are blessings from the gods. Before the advent of modern medicine, women petitioned certain deities for fertility and the birth of a healthy infant. The shrines to these deities - Erinle, Yemoja, Shango, Ogun, and others - were adorned with sculptured figures representing a mother and child, as exemplified by this figure. The absence of cult attributes makes specific identification of this figure impossible. The kneeling position is a gesture of respect, devotion, and submission. Thus the figure represented in the carving is probably a petitioner rather than a deity. The sculpture may have been a votive offering from a woman who had successfully petitioned for a child, a priest or priestess of a cult, or even the entire body of
Afo maternity figures are thought to represent an ancestral mother and are owned by individual villages.These figures are brought out of their shrines once a year for the Aya ceremony. At this time, men pray for increased fertility in their wives and make gifts of food and money to the ancestor.
Extant maternity figures from the Afo are usually monoxylous, that is, carved from one piece, and are usually shown with only one child. It was customary in the grasslands Batufam Kingdom to have portrait statues carved of the new fon (king) and the wife who bore his first child. According to royal custom, the heir to the throne could not rule until he proved his fertility. The sculptures were executed within two years of the beginning of the reign and were used in the rites of installation of the successor.
|Female figure with child|
Kongo people, Congo
Among the symbols of rank belonging to Kongo kings and chiefs were scepters (mvuala) made of hardwood and usually topped by an ancestor figure carved of precious ivory. Very often the ancestor so represented was a female (Cornet 1971, 48). Because power was transmitted through the female line, rulers were selected from among the matrilineage. The king's mother was titled the "queen mother," and although she did not share rule with her son, she held a position of respect and privilege.
Article and images, courtesy of Rand African Art
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