Cultures & Traditions

Art to Aid Conception and Birth

"Children are better than riches," declares an African proverb. Children obviously represent continuity from one generation to the next, but they are crucial for other reasons. Most importantly, they fulfill the biological roles of males and females, demonstrating their sexual identity, virility, and fertility. Children are also the "social security" system for their elderly parents: they care for them and ensure they receive a proper burial, which is necessary to successfully transition to the afterlife and possibly achieve ancestor status or be reincarnated as a child. Those who do not procreate are considered most unfortunate.

To assure conception and the successful delivery of healthy infants, women have sought spiritual intervention. Ritual objects were used throughout sub-Saharan Africa by diviners to identify the cause of and cure for infertility and by legendary midwives or healers to petition the deities. Some ritual objects may be repurposed. Akua'ma, statues of female infants commissioned by Asante women hoping to become pregnant, for example, may become educational aids to teach childcare.

Because African art has a multivalent nature, an object may have multiple significances. Fang and Kota reliquary guardian figures protect the venerated relics of ancestors who are empowered to bless their descendants with children, and a Bobo Nwenka mask appears not only at funerals but also at agricultural festivals to encourage fertility of human beings as well as the land.

Children are a material blessing from the Supreme Being through his various deities. The blessing may be achieved easily and naturally. If supernatural aid is needed to successfully achieve one's biological destiny, aesthetic objects are required for effective communication with the spirit world. Spirits, like human beings, are attracted to beautiful things.

Adapted from

Roslyn A. Walker, The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), 101.

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