Cultures & Traditions

Art for Coming-of-Age

Coming-of-age is an event in the life cycle that is formally acknowledged and celebrated throughout the world. In the United States, coming-of-age rites take various forms according to ethnic or socio-religious patterns. Jewish girls and boys, for example, undergo religious training and learn the responsibilities of adulthood at age twelve and thirteen, respectively. In Latin American communities, teenage girls celebrate their fifteenth birthday with a quinceañera, and American girls of European and African descent may celebrate their entry into adult society with a debut. In recent years, many African American churches and youth-oriented organizations have prepared boys and girls for adulthood in formal programs patterned after traditional African rituals. Preparation for adulthood in the United States as in Africa may take years, months, or days depending on the established norms and expectations of the community. Similarly, the culminating activity may be a celebratory event that requires the initiates to wear special attire and perhaps demonstrate their new knowledge or skills before an audience.

In sub-Saharan Africa, before the introduction of "formal" education in Muslim or Western-style schools, boys and girls were educated in a secluded "bush school," or forest encampment, located some distance from the village or town. The curriculum included discipline, the traditions of the people and etiquette, professional training needed for gender-appropriate occupations (e.g., farming, hunting, or war; home economics, pottery making, or weaving), sexual responsibility, and the obligations of marriage and family life. At this time, youth were also initiated into the prevailing religion. The youths learn to sing and dance, skills required for socializing and for participation in religious activities. Secrets pertaining to masking and secret societies that had been withheld from them were now revealed. For boys and girls, attending the bush school meant separation from their parents (mothers, especially for the boys), and bonding with their age mates. In many societies, sexual identity was confirmed by circumcision (boys) or excision (girls), and proof of courage was tested by various physical ordeals. Among some peoples, coming-of-age rituals included modifying an individual's face and/or body for the purpose of identity with the group or family, as marks of civilization, and for beautification.

An array of sculpted masks, figures, and other aesthetic objects that have a role in coming-of-age rituals or manifest the outcome of this rite of passage are presented in the Dallas Museum of Art collection.

Adapted from

Roslyn A. Walker, The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), 121.

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