Children Ask Questions about West African Art
Abercrombie, Denice, Cochran, Mathilda, Mims, Margaret, Art Education
This instructional resource section features four works from the collection of African art and the Glassell collection of African Gold at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas. Students from Cheryl Jones's and Peggy Licea's fifth grade classes at Pleasantville Elementary posed questions about the works of art, allowing the students' interests to be the first consideration in this unit The children's questions focus on some of the most important visuals aspects of the art and provide a natural lead-in to a more detailed discussion of the work.
Mother and Child Figure,
Yoruba people, Ekiti region, Southwestern Nigeria, late 19th century. Wood, traces of indigo, 17 1/2 x 5 x 8 inches The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Museum purchase with funds provided by the Alice Pratt Brown Museum Fund. 91.238
STUDENT QUESTIONS & DISCUSSION: What do the marks on her face symbolize?
In many African cultures, scarification is a means of adornment and is considered to be a very attractive feature. What are some ways that you or your friends adorn yourselves? (clothing, jewelry, badges, pierced ears, etc.) Consider means of adornment that have a special meaning or status for you at your school, in clubs, scouts, church, or synagogue.
Is there anything in that pot?
Although in a museum setting the bowl is empty, in the Yoruba society it would have been used on an altar and filled with offerings to facilitate communication with the spirit world. Consider vessels and name as many uses as you can imagine from everyday domestic needs to ceremonial occasions. What kinds of things are in bowls or vessels in your home? What kinds of designs would you make on a special bowl?
Why is the head so large?
In African culture, the head is considered the seat of wisdom, emotion, authority, and fortune and is emphasized in art to express this idea. What one characteristic of your best friend's personality do you like most (sense of humor, special talent, willingness to listen to you, etc.)? If you were making a sculpture of him/her, what part would you emphasize?
Subject: In most African societies, the primary role of women is to bear and nurture children. This cultural emphasis on motherhood is represented by the plentiful images of women with children found in African art. This shrine figure probably represents the devotee of a religious cult who commissioned it as a petition or a thanks offering to the cult god, possibly for the birth of a healthy child. The primary focus is on the mother the young child on the mother's back is a secondary figure and treated as an extension of the mother's personality. The child, as a symbol of maternity, reinforces the role of the mother and her importance to the society. The figure would have been placed on an altar and the bowl used to hold offerings, probably a single kola nut, a common means of communication with otherworldly spirits. The kneeling posture of the mother indicates an attitude of respect and devotion to the cult deity.
Style: Yoruba sculpture, as is typical of much African art, is frontal, depicting upright posture and a basic symmetry. Asymmetry is restricted to secondary details, such as the head of the child in this figure. The Yoruba have developed a set of standard criteria of excellence for sculpture, which can be seen in this work. These include a midpoint balance between resemblance and likeness; clarity of form and line; shining smoothness, a polished surface that emphasizes the shadows of incised lines; emotional proportion, the size of parts related to their emotional emphasis; and the depiction of human figures in the prime of life portrayed with composure. This composure or "coolness" is seen as a lack of emotion in facial expression or gesture. The mother figure depicts this proper demeanor, contrasted with the inquisitive face of the child, who looks off in another direction. …