Cultures & Traditions

Art for the Afterlife

Throughout Africa, in traditional societies and among many cosmopolitan inhabitants, the belief is held that death is but a transition to another stage in the cycle of life. The Yoruba proverb "Earth is a marketplace we visit; heaven [or the afterlife], home" underscores this notion. The dead may be reborn. Yoruba names for newborns—Babtunde, "the father has come again," and Yetunde, "the mother has come again"—echo the belief that an ancestor has returned to earth.

Contented ancestors willingly intercede with the deities and other spiritual entities on behalf of their survivors. To ensure the departed can rest rather than cause mischief and misfortune, families must properly carry out the funeral rites. Before burial, the deceased's debts must be paid and a funeral celebration befitting his or her station in life must be held. Family members must serve refreshments (which may be for a whole village or for a whole street in a town) during the all-night "wake-keeping" and funeral, dress the dead in special clothing and decorate the room in which the corpse will lie in state, and hire a band. In the past, the exigencies of a tropical climate dictated immediate interment; traditional mortuary practices in sub-Saharan Africa are varied and include preservation of the remains without embalming or refrigeration. Nowadays the surviving family may, in the absence of Western-style funeral homes, have to cover the cost of storing the corpse in the air-conditioned mortuary of a hospital as well as finance a masquerade and videotape the funerary events for relatives unable to attend. The importance of this financial obligation cannot be underestimated. An individual unable to obtain a bank loan to start a business may well immediately receive a loan to pay for the funeral of a family elder. Moreover, because a commemorative event on the anniversary of the death is expected, the financial obligations continue.

Traditional art is used extensively during the funerary rituals. Finely crafted divination objects ascertain the cause of death, elaborate objects made of rare and expensive materials are buried with the deceased or decorate the grave, locally woven or imported textiles wrap the body or dress the deceased's family, and sculpted figures and masks are present during the funeral celebration and subsequent commemorative events. Relics associated with the dead are preserved in special containers guarded by sculpted figures. Other figures that memorialize the departed and serve as vessels for their spirits and a medium through which to communicate with them are placed on domestic shrines, in special memorial houses, or in cemeteries. The promise and expectation of their ancestors' continued interest and support compel families to commission art that is both appropriate and beautiful so the ancestor will be attracted to them.

Adapted from

Roslyn A. Walker, The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), 179.

Related Multimedia

gallery talk; Includes discussion of Janus Reliquary Figure (Mbulu Ngulu), Kota peoples of Gabon, 2005.36.McD, DMA Collection

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