By Dr. Christa Clarke, for The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
In many African societies, art plays an important role in various rites of passage throughout the cycle of life. These rituals mark an individual’s transition from one stage of life to another. The birth of a child, a youth’s coming of age, and the funeral of a respected elder are all events in which an individual undergoes a change of status. During these transitional periods, individuals are considered to be especially vulnerable to spiritual forces. Art objects are therefore created and employed to assist in the rite of passage and to reinforce community values.
The birth of a child is an important event, not only for a family but for society as well. Children ensure the continuity of a community, and therefore a woman’s ability to bear children inspires awe. Ideals of motherhood and nurturance are often expressed visually through figurative sculpture. Among the Senufo, for example, female figures pay homage to the important roles women play as founders of lineages (the direct descent from an ancestor) and guardians of male initiates (example left). The importance of motherhood is symbolized by a gently swelling belly and lines of scarification radiating from the navel, considered the source of life. In other societies, such as the Bamana, figural sculptures are employed in ceremonies designed to assist women having difficulty conceiving (example below). They serve simultaneously as a point of contact for spiritual intercession and as a visual reminder of physical and moral ideals.
Initiation, or the coming of age of a boy or girl, is a transition frequently marked by ceremony and celebration. The education of youths in preparation for the responsibilities of adulthood is often a long and arduous process. Initiation rites usually begin at the onset of puberty.
Boys, and to a lesser extent girls, are separated from their families and taken to a secluded area on the outskirts of the community where they undergo a sustained period of instruction and, more typically in the past than now, circumcision. At the conclusion of this mentally and physically rigorous period, they are reintroduced to society as fully initiated adults and given the responsibilities and privileges that accompany their new status.During initiation, artworks protect and impart moral lessons to the youths. The spiritual forces associated with this period of transformation are often given visual expression in the form of masked performances.
During the initiation of boys, male dancers wearing wooden masks may make several appearances. Their performances can serve diverse purposes—to educate boys about their future social role, to bolster morale, to impress upon them respect for authority, or simply to entertain and relieve stress. The initiation of girls rarely includes the use of wooden masks, focusing more on transforming the body through the application of pigment.
The women’s Sande society, found among the Mende and their neighbors, is one of the few organizations in which women wear wooden masks as part of initiation ceremonies (example here). Many initiation organizations continue in today’s Africa, often adapting to contemporary lifestyles. For example, in the past, the Sande society’s initiation process could take months to complete; now, Sande sessions have adapted to the calendars of secondary schools and initiation may be completed during vacation and holiday periods.
In many African societies, death is not considered an end but rather another transition. The passing of a respected elder is a time of grief and lamentation but also celebration. In this final rite of passage, the deceased joins the realm of the honored ancestors. While the dead are buried soon after death, a formal funeral often takes place at a later time. Funeral ceremonies with masked performances serve to celebrate the life of an individual and to assist the soul of the deceased in his or her passage from the human realm to that of the spirits (example here). Such ceremonies generally mark the end of a period of mourning and may be collective, honoring the lives of the deceased over a number of years.
Figurative sculpture is also employed to commemorate important ancestors. Representations of the deceased, individualized through details of hairstyle, dress, and scarification, serve not only as memorials but also as a focal point for rituals communicating with ancestors (example here). In some central African societies, certain bones of the deceased are believed to contain great power and are preserved in a reliquary (a container or shrine in which relics or objects of related importance are kept). In such cases, figurative sculpture attached to the reliquary does not represent the ancestor but honors and amplifies the power of the sacred relics (example above).
By Dr. Christa Clarke, for The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York