Politics of Maternity: Mother and Child Imagery in the Arts of Africa

June 25, 2003 @ 10:00 am – 11:30 am
Goethe Room, Academy of Sciences
San Francisco

by Herbert M. “Skip” Cole

Reviewed by Jerry Jacob

FEA members were offered a rare opportunity to  preview a work in progress when Herbert M. (Skip) Cole, Ph.D, shared his plans for an exhibition bridging the chasm between traditional African artistic concepts of  maternity and an emerging body of modern, politically charged work by African women artists. Cole’s June 25 lecture at the California Academy of Sciences drew on his intimate knowledge of the eons-long evolution of the  representation, iconography, and ritual significance of the images of maternity and womanhood in African  culture.
Cole’s body of work, along with his teaching at UC Santa Barbara, includes authorship and/or editing of numerous books, articles and monographs including “Icons: Ideals and Power in the Art of Africa,” 1989; “Igbo Arts: Community and Cosmos,” 1984; “The Arts of Ghana,” 1977; “I Am Not Myself, The Art of African Masquerade,” 1985; “The History of Art in   Africa,” 2000 and “The Mother and Child in African Sculpture,” 1985.
His slides and comments traced both the transitions and parallels in the symbolism and cultural context of maternity  figures over the millennia beginning with the earliest known rock paintings.
Using examples from the Egyptian depiction of King Horus sitting on the throne of Mother Isis, an image repeated for all Pharaohs, Cole made the point that traditional images made by men for men seem to recognize that society is paternalistic. In such male-dominated societies,  maternal images objectify, idealize,  and glorify maternity and mother and child.
The reverence for and recognition of the position of women and motherhood is   central to the iconography of fertility, healing and power objects. This theme of power carried through contact with the maternity figure repeats through similar imagery in Djenne culture some 1,500 years later, in the Ethiopian images of Mary in the 15th Century, and in the Bamana Chi-Wara where one figure is carried on the back of another. In these and many other examples, Cole makes the point that the Mother is container and the Male is contained; that the source of all power, life and   energy is derived from the female.
As women have gained the ability to recognize and express their autonomy and position in African society in recent years, Cole says that an emerging body of expressive arts is being created by a cadre of South African women artists such as Zara Ya’qob, Penny Siopis and Terry Kurgan. These artists have created a new corpus of work picturing birth, motherhood and women in protest of the traditional repression and lack of status of women and motherhood found in traditional society.
These artists are creating powerful works damning the discrimination, torture and economic deprivation of women; railing against the practice of women giving up their own children to eke out a subsistence wage caring for the children of wealthy white mothers.
In Kergun’s “Maternal Exposures” sound is interwoven with photographs of the birthing process exposing the feelings, secret fears and joys and exposed emotions of mothers in the maternity ward. In “Mothers and Others” she explores the fascination evidenced by people she encountered while pregnant. Using found objects and film, Sciopis’ work also delves into subjects as diverse as the culture of breasts, maternity, cultural moiré’s creating provocative installations and images.
Cole’s intent is to create an exhibit, targeted for 2005, exploring the parallels and divergences between what is recognized as traditional African Art and the changing images of women and maternity as expressed by these and other women. His thesis is that by juxtaposing    traditional images and sculpture with modern expressions of maternity a greater understanding of the roles of both points of view can be achieved.