Strength, Health, Fecundity, and Beauty

George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University

Like African emphasis on a calm grace in artistic representation, most other African aesthetic criteria, such as a preference for wealth, embody social attitudes that obviously derive from qualities crucial to the comfort and even survival of small agricultural communities. Similarly,

Health is an attribute almost always represented in African figures both because a healthy person is in harmony with the spirits and because to be healthy is a cultural ideal. Health connotes vigor, productiveness, fertility, and an ability to labor. In these small agricultural societies chiefs, elders, women, artists, children -- virtually everybody works in the fields; people who are unproductive are undesirable. [Susan Mullin Vogel, Aesthetics of African Art: The Carlo Monzino Collection, (N.Y.: Center for African Art, 1986), 21]

According to Vogel, in sculpture "a strong neck" becomes a valued aesthetic feature since it represents "ability to carry heavy loads, which is essential in a society where everything moves by head portage. Firm, round calf and pectoral muscles similarly attest to the ability to work hard."

Of all such attributes, she continues, fertility is the most highly desired, and therefore "images of pregnant women and women with children [images] express the ultimate cultural ideal. Because the purpose of most African art and ritual is to promote increase of the family and community, women and children are fitting images for ritual sculpture." In Traditional Art of Nigerian Peoples (1977), which Vogel cites, Henry John Drewal provides an additional meaning: "nursing mothers and pregnant women are not menstruating and thus attain a state akin to that of female elders. Menstrual blood is considered potent, dangerous to men and many shrines, and, according to the Yoruba, the loss of menstrual blood saps a woman's vital spirtual force. Images of pregnant and lactating women thus become "much more than symbols of fertility. They communicate sexual abstinence, female force, and spirituality" (Drewal, 50).

Left: Fang wooden figure "combining proportions of an infant with signs of maturity reflect[s] the continuity of the life cycle" --Willett, 162; Armani collection

Postcolonial Web [Africa] Nigeria OV Visual Arts

Last Modified: 14 March 2002