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  • Maternity: Mothers and Children in the Arts of Africa by Herbert M. Cole
  • Lisa Aronson (bio)
Maternity: Mothers and Children in the Arts of Africa by Herbert M. Cole Brussels: Mercatorfonds, distributed Yale University Press, 2017. 376 pp., 332 color and b/w ill., map, bibliography, index. In both French and English. $90.00

Herbert Cole's new book, Maternity: Mothers and Children in the Arts of Africa, is his most comprehensive study to date of the motherhood theme in African art. His passion for this subject began in the early 1960s with his research on Igbo Mbari and its dedication to the earth goddess Ala, resulting in his seminal book, Mbari, Art and Life Among the Owerri Igbo (1984). Cole included the maternity theme in his 1989 book Icons: Ideals and Power in the Art of Africa, with a chapter on maternity and abundance and another on the male and female couple. His newest book explores the theme of motherhood even more broadly across the continent and over time, with a focus mostly on sculptural representations, and on mother/child sculptures in particular. Large in size, and beautifully produced and formatted, the book combines 332 illustrations, the majority full page and in color. But the real strength of Cole's volume is its breadth of coverage, meticulous organization, and well-written text drawn from some of the very best scholarship in the field.

In his introduction, one of eleven chapters, Cole offers reasons why so much African art celebrates motherhood or thwarts elements working against it, such as barrenness or infant mortality. He reminds us that African cultures have always placed a particularly high value on having children, preferably lots of them. Also, African mothers foster strong bonds with their infants by, among other things, carrying their babies on their back, a benefit aptly expressed by the Baule proverb "A mother's back is the baby's medicine." However, not all cultures have viewed childrearing or treated pregnancy similarly nor have they all given equal attention to themes of maternity in their art— points Cole argues well throughout the book by avoiding generalizations and by exploring a variety of cultural approaches to the theme of motherhood.

His next chapter presents a broad historical sweep of mother/child imagery on the continent, starting with the earliest—4000 Bc rock art of Algeria—and ending with the work of one living South African artist, Willie Bester. In between, the chapter covers a wide spectrum of cultures, including those revealed archaeologically (i.e., Egypt, Nok, Djenne-Jeno) and ones influenced by early European contact, such as Sapi-Portuguese ivories and maternity-related sculptures from the Lower Congo.

Five of his book's chapters are regional in focus. One considers arts from the Upper (Inland) Niger Delta area of West Africa, beginning with a deeper examination of Djenne-Jeno than in the previous chapter, and with particular attention to its diseased figures and what appear to be distorted images of pregnant mothers. He then turns to mother and child sculptures by the Dogon and Bamana as examples of descendants of the Djenne-Jeno figures. Another chapter looks at the maternity theme in art from three disparate regions of Africa: southern Nigeria/Cameroon (Igbo, Afo, and Mbembe), the Congo Watershed (Pende, Lulua, and Luba), and the Upper Niger (Senufo and Bamana). Each of three others examines the topic within a single culture or cultural complex: the Akan-speakers of Ghana/Côte d'Ivoire, the Congolese of central Africa, and the Yoruba of Nigeria, respectively.

Yet other chapters are more thematic in nature. The chapter titled "The Sculptured Children of Aspiring Mothers" considers a host of small, simply rendered sculptures, e.g., Ashanti/Fanti Akuaba or Mossi "infant" figures (biiga), made to ensure healthy births for anxious mothers-to-be. Another covers a diversity of objects, mediums, and contexts in which mother/child imagery appears, addressing everything from Bamana puppets, Yaka or Punu combs, Senufo Tyekpa images of a bird with small birds on her back, or Fon composite images (bocio) to freestanding shrine sculptures among the Igbo Alusi and Idoma Anjenu. One chapter is about maternity themes in masquerading, e.g...


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