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., Gelede and Epa masks of the Yoruba of Nigeria and the Nkhanda masks of the Yaka of Central Africa. The last chapter of the book explores maternity in modern/contemporary art through a series of comparisons. For example, a Senufo maternity figure is compared with South African artist Jane Alexander's Pastoral Scene to explain the paradigm shift between village-based communal art, the main focus of this book, and more urban-based art by academically trained artists.
In presenting his material through these various lenses, Cole makes a strong and compelling case for the universal, or “archetypal” (p. 13) nature of maternity in African art. But as comprehensive as Cole's book is—and let's face it, no book can cover everything—it leaves the door open for a more expanded study of the maternity theme along at least two lines of inquiry. One would be to consider—as a supplement to the book's representational, and largely sculptural, focus—Africa's corpus of two-dimensional, abstract design through which maternity themes are expressed, such as in Bamana bogolanfini, Ashanti kente, or Zulu beadwork. The wearable nature of such media calls for a consideration of their role in body politics in general and as markers of status and power in particular.
Also, Cole's discussion of themes of motherhood in modern and contemporary art begs a more expansive view. His chapter on that subject looks mainly at South Africas artists, who he regards as “the most prolific change-agents in this period,” while giving only cursory attention to works about motherhood by African artists from elsewhere on the continent. A more balanced coverage would not only be more in keeping with the broad-based scope of his book at large, but help to avoid the impression that only artists from South Africa own that subject matter. It could also offer the opportunity to examine in a comparative way how, and in what cultural contexts, artists from different African countries, South Africa vs. Senegal, for example, explore ideas about maternity.
The combination of the historical and the contemporary in this volume raises another concern: the need for greater clarity overall regarding the dating of objects and the tense, past or present, employed in writing about them. As is appropriate, Cole uses the past tense when discussing artworks from ancient Egypt or Mali or works such as Igbo mbari that he studied in the 1960s but are no longer produced today. However, when writing about artworks collected in the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries—the vast majority of those featured in the book—Cole often reverts to using the present tense, the “ethnographic present.” For example, regarding a mother/child sculpture collected from the Cameroon in 1912, Cole writes: “Notably in some kingdoms, a leader's installation rites will not be completed until one of his wives gives birth to a child” (p. 169). It may be true that cultural values such as this one die slower than their related artistic production. However, use of the present tense to contextualize a hundred-year-old object, a form of discourse regrettably not uncommon in writing about African art at large, only reinforces the age-old adage that African art is timeless, when in reality, many of the sculptural examples discussed in the book are no longer being produced.
Such shortcomings aside, Cole's book, with its rich compendium of well-illustrated and well-documented works, is a true celebration of maternity-related African art. Available in both English and French, the book will appeal to a wide audience of collectors, lovers, and students interested in that subject. The following sentence, extracted from the end of one of Cole's chapters, not only illustrates the beauty of his writing, but nicely encapsulates the overall spirit of his study:
The mother by herself, and finally, with her child, and at times with her reciprocal male “partner,” becomes a tightly packed metaphor for active regeneration, growth, fruitfulness of field and family and sometimes kingship, as well as protection, beauty, integrity, continuity, prosperity and all other good things sought in human society (p. 162).