Cultures & Traditions

Art for Security and Well-Being

Traditional African art addresses an essential human concern, that of well-being or the state of feeling content. Feeling secure in a peaceful and orderly environment, being mentally and physically healthy, having a family of one’s own, prospering in one’s occupation, and dying in old age of natural causes contribute to this sense of well-being and contentment. In the belief that there are influential supernatural forces in all things—living and dead, animate and inanimate—that can be appeased or contacted and petitioned for blessings, humans have invented various objects to serve as mediums of communication and as tangible symbols of the invisible.

Artworks used to ensure communal and individual security and well-being include masks, religious objects, medicine vials, and power figures. Masks of the Baga and Yoruba peoples portray celebrated deities and culture heroes, while other masks imbued with powers to punish evildoers enforced the law. Bronze bells and shrine figures were used in the context of religious worship. Medicine was contained in specially crafted vessels and in solid figures representing intangible spiritual forces that protected the community, promoted good fortune, or ensured success in trading and hunting. Power figures were charged with magical materials as well as supernatural forces to heal, seek out wrongdoers, or enforce a contractual agreement and required the services of a ritual specialist to activate them. This also includes a drum that, in this context, contributes to women’s mental health.

The multivalent nature of most African art allows these objects to express the theme of security and well-being. Other objects could as well—for example, the divination objects that are used to ascertain the cause and cure of infertility or to avert or reverse other misfortune; or the Nwenka mask that represents the Creator God and the Egungun masquerade costume that makes a family ancestor visible, both of which can be petitioned for blessings. In all cases, artists have created objects that conform to the canon but are unique and, as such, attract the attention of spiritual entities.

Adapted from

Roslyn A. Walker, The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), 139.

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