UCSB Professor Emeritus Herbert M. Cole has the daunting task of distilling his 75,000 word book “Maternity: Mothers and Children in the Arts of Africa” down to just an hour when he gives his lecture of the same name at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art on August 1. But by hitting the “high points” of his book, Dr. Cole hopes the public will see the “astonishing richness of African art” as it relates to the theme of motherhood.
During his lecture, the professor will share a wealth of information on Africa’s “culture of maternity” from history to the modern day and how it manifests in the continent’s arts. He will also emphasize the contrast between African and Western cultures surrounding motherhood. As the News-Press sat down with him on Wednesday to discuss what to expect from his talk, Dr. Cole said a major topic covered will be the difference in importance the two cultures place on childbirth.
“Most African women, even to this day in the modern age, don’t feel as if they are fulfilled until they give birth to a child. That’s not true in this culture, there are plenty of women who are perfectly happy never to have a child. But that’s still not true in Africa, particularly not true in rural Africa,” he said.
Despite a wide variation among the plethora of cultures and peoples found on the continent, many African maternity cultures contain a far more spiritual dimension than in the West. This is particularly apparent in the case of infertile women. In some African cultures, when a barren woman discovers her condition, she informs a soothsayer who prescribes her medicine and instructs her to get herself a “child figure,” an artifact Dr. Cole devoted an entire chapter to in his book. Often decorated with beads, symbols of prosperity, a child figure is carried on a woman’s back like a real infant as a prayer for her to one day bear children.
“I like to refer to these child figures as tangible prayers for conception, a safe pregnancy, and successful birth,” he said.
With his talk, the professor hopes he can “break a couple of stereotypes.” As Dr. Cole leafed through his book’s chapter on child figures, he explained that a lot of literature on African art often incorrectly refers to them as “dolls.” While some child figures do become dolls, particularly when a supposedly infertile woman has a baby girl, more often than not they are returned to the shrine where the woman prayed over the figure in hope of a child.
While talking about child figures, the Professor Cole pointed out their relative simplicity compared to statues of women carrying children. Whereas the latter were unmistakably visual representations of mothers holding babies, the child figures were only abstractly relatable to infants. The other stereotype the professor hopes to dispel is the misconception of the mother-infant statues as “fertility goddesses.”
“They certainly have to do with fertility, an increase in productivity, and increasing the size of the family, but many of them are not goddesses at all,” he said.
As he pointed to images of these statues created by the Yoruba people of western Nigeria, the most prolific artists on the African continent, Dr. Cole said not one of them depicted deities, but instead the wives of traders, farmers, diviners, and chiefs.
While Africa’s art through most of its history across tribes and nations glorified mothers with their infants, the professor will also discuss a relatively recent change that occurred in the mid-20th century: The introduction of “maternal subjectivity.” According to the Dr. Cole, works expressing this view depicted the “hell” of giving childbirth in patriarchal African societies and the pain mothers felt as they had to work and leave their children to be cared for by grandmothers and other women.
“That’s what the whole last chapter is about. It’s about the shift, the paradigm shift between the glorification and idealization of the mother and child and the reality of giving birth in a heavily, heavily patriarchal culture,” he said. Professor Cole’s lecture will begin at 5:30 p.m. in the museum’s Mary Craig Auditorium. Tickets can be purchased at the museum’s visitor services desk or online at tickets.sbma.net. Admission is $10 for Santa Barbara Museum of Art members, $15 for non-members, and free for students and curators’ patrons.