Great Mother Headdress (D'mba). Late 19th‒early 20th century. Baga region, Guinea.
Great Mother Headdress (D'mba). Late 19th‒early 20th century. Baga region, Guinea.

BALTIMORE, MD (February 20, 2020)—Throughout the matrilineal societies of 18th-, 19th- and 20th-century Africa, symbols of motherhood were used to imbue artworks with moral, cultural, and  spiritual authority, or “mother power.” While individual artworks from this region and the anthropology of maternal kinship (when a person’s identity and authority is determined by their mother’s bloodline) have been studied in depth, the wider relationship between artistic creativity and maternal kinship has been largely unexplored. The Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) brings this subject to light with A Perfect Power: Motherhood and African Art, an exhibition that demonstrates how this powerful visual iconography played an important role in the functioning of these states and societies. On view from April 5 through July 12, 2020, the exhibition includes nearly 40 artworks drawn from public and private collections. A Perfect Power is presented as part of the museum’s 2020 Vision initiative to explore the wide-ranging contributions of women artists as well as historic representations of women in art from many times and places.

A Perfect Power: Motherhood and African Art is curated by Kevin Tervala, BMA Associate Curator of African Art; Oyèrónké Oyěwùmí, Professor of Sociology, Africana, and Women’s Studies at Stony Brook University; and Jennifer Kingsley, Director of the Museums & Society Program at Johns Hopkins University (JHU). Additional support was provided by JHU undergraduate students Michael Harper, Hae In Kim, Maria Kyriakakos, Clara Leverenz, and Andrea White, who participated in the Spring 2019 Curatorial Practicum. Their research and perspectives were instrumental to the development of the exhibition, from the checklist to the installation plan to the text used to describe
featured works.

“2020 Vision provided the opportunity to consider the BMA’s collection through a new lens that has long fascinated me,” said Tervala. “By bringing objects from our collection into dialogue with important loans from institutions across the country, the tremendous extent to which motherhood and power are synonymous in the visual vocabulary of matrilineal states and societies becomes clear. Oyèrónké Oyěwùmí’s vision and perspective has been essential to the development of this exhibition as well. Her rich, theoretical perspective provided a new framework through which to explore motherhood as an essential metaphor for power, and I hope that it will encourage audiences to consider motherhood from a new vantage point.”

The exhibition opens with an exploration of the five most common symbols artists and craftspeople used to signify “mother power”: pregnancy, prominent breasts, scarification, a bold gaze, or the presence of a child. While an impregnated womb was the clearest sign of the ability to create life, prominent breasts were used by artists to signal the ability to sustain and nourish it. Decorative scars, particularly around the womb, were used to draw attention to the site of the origin of life. Confident gazes demonstrated the strength of mothers, while the presence of children in sculptures represented the healthy futures of not only families but whole communities.

Highlights of the exhibition that demonstrate “mother power” include the BMA’s own D’mba (Great Mother Headdress) from the Baga culture in Guinea, which will be presented fully dressed for the first time, appearing as it would have when it was used during ceremonies. This intricate wooden headdress, one of the finest examples of its kind, represents a woman at the height of her power, created to honor women, inspire girls, and reflect the belief that Baga culture was created and sustained by mothers. Another highlight is the Singiti (Commemorative Portrait of a Chief) where the male chief that the sculpture represents appears pregnant. The Hemba artist in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) who sculpted this wooden figure chose to mark the importance of the
chief’s achievements by depicting him with the most direct sign of power, the ability to create life.

Another outstanding example is an intricately carved wood Kipona (Throne) from the Luba region of the DRC. In this work, the body of the male leader is depicted as being supported by the figure of a woman. So associated were women with royal power in the Luba kingdom that it was believed when the king died his spirit moved into the body of a woman, who was then known by the title Mwadi.

A Perfect Power also demonstrates how artworks used maternal symbolism to provide protection, assist in initiation ceremonies that transformed boys into men, and stabilize communities amidst the horrors of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. The Phemba (Mother and Child Figure) from the Yombe region of the DRC was created as part of Mpemba, a society which commissioned artists to carve mother and child sculptures to provide spiritual protection to mothers and pregnant women during the rapid and violent depopulation of the Kongolese society. Mukudj’ (White Masks) from the Punu region of Gabon were danced during serious periods of social unrest.

“With 2020 Vision, we wanted to offer our audience a wide cross-section of experiences. In addition to presenting the formal and conceptual contributions of female-identifying artists to the dialogues and narratives of art, it was equally critical that we examine some of the ways that women have shaped cultural histories and traditions,” said Christopher Bedford, BMA Dorothy Wagner Wallis Director. “A Perfect Power presents an opportunity to look afresh at the idea of motherhood through a framework incredibly different from Western and contemporary notions, thus enhancing our wider understanding of its significance across time and place. We look forward to engaging our visitors not only with the concepts in A Perfect Power but also the exceptional works of art that it features.”

About the Baltimore Museum of Art

Founded in 1914, the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) inspires people of all ages and backgrounds through exhibitions, programs, and collections that tell an expansive story of art—challenging long-held narratives and embracing new voices. Our outstanding collection of more than 97,000 objects spans many eras and cultures and includes the world’s largest public holding of works by Henri Matisse; one of the nation’s finest collections of prints, drawings, and photographs; and a rapidly growing number of works by contemporary artists of diverse backgrounds. The museum is also distinguished by a neoclassical building designed by American architect John Russell Pope and two beautifully landscaped gardens featuring an array of modern and contemporary sculpture. The BMA is located three miles north of the Inner Harbor, adjacent to the main campus of Johns Hopkins University, and has a community branch at Lexington Market. General admission is free so that everyone can enjoy the power of art.

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