Bryn Mawr College Art & Archaeology Collections

Journeys Through African Womanhood

A Selection of African Art from the Bryn Mawr College Collection by Members of Sisterhood

February 14, 2003 through March 28, 2003
Rhys Carpernter Library for Art, Archaeology, and Cities
Kaiser Reading Room and Fong Reading Room


The vision for this exhibition Journeys through African Womanhood was born from an earnest desire to commemorate African heritage during Black History Month, and to reflect upon the influence of African women. The exhibition embodies the various representations of African women during different stages of life from puberty to motherhood. Journeys through African Womanhood conveys a sentiment that women are sources of strength, love, nurturing, and wisdom.

Kaiser Reading Room
Lower Shelf, From Left to Right:

"Necklace. Plant material, glass beads, metal. Zulu (Northern Nguni), South Africa. Mace Neufeld & Helen Katz Neufeld '53 Collection of African & Oceanic Art.
"Necklace. Glass beads, metal, plant material. Zulu (Northern Nguni), South Africa. Mace Neufeld & Helen Katz Neufeld '53 Collection of African & Oceanic Art.
"Anklet. Glass beads, textile thread, metal beads. Zulu (Northern Nguni), South Africa. Mace Neufeld & Helen Katz Neufeld '53 Collection of African & Oceanic Art.
"Neckpiece. Glass Beads, leather, cotton. Turkana, Kenya. Mace Neufeld and Helen Katz Neufeld'53 Collection of African and Oceanic Art
"Cache Sexe; Pubic apron/girdle. Glass beads, cloth, fiber. Yoruba, Nigeria. Mace Neufeld & Helen Katz Neufeld '53 Collection of African & Oceanic Art.
"Cache Sexe; Pubic apron/girdle. Glass beads, textile, metal. Zulu (Northern Nguni), South Africa. Mace Neufeld & Helen Katz Neufeld '53 Collection of African & Oceanic Art.
"Headband. Leather, plant material, glass beads, textile, thread, metal. Yoruba, Nigeria. Mace Neufeld & Helen Katz Neufeld '53 Collection of African & Oceanic Art.
Upper Shelf, From Left to Right:
"Female Figurine. Wood. Baule, Ivory Coast.
"Female Figurine. Wood, Glass Beads, Human Hair. Grebo, Ivory Coast. Mace Neufeld & Helen Katz Neufeld '53 Collection of African & Oceanic Art.
"Female Fertility Figurine. "Akua'ba" Wood. Ashanti, Ghana. Gift of Margaret Feurer Plass '17
"Female Fertility Figurine. Wood, beads, pigment. Fante, Ghana. Gift of Margaret Feurer Plass '17
"Female Fertility Figurine. Wood. Ashanti (Western Akan), Ghana. Mace Neufeld & Helen Katz Neufeld '53 Collection of African & Oceanic Art.
"Shrine wand. Wood. Yoruba, Nigeria. Bequest of Hobson Pittman.

Fong Reading Room
Upper Shelf , From Left to Right:

"Body Chalk Dish. Wood and paint. Igbo, Nigeria. Gift of Margaret Feurer Plass '17
"Six Drinking Vessels/Wedding Cups(?). Wood. Yaka, Zaire. Mace Neufeld & Helen Katz Neufeld '53 Collection of African & Oceanic Art.
"Rice Spoon. Wood. Dan, Ivory Coast. Gift of Margaret Feurer Plass '17
Lower Shelf, Fom Left to Right:
"Cache Sexe; Pubic apron/girdle. Glass beads, plant material, metal. Zulu (Northern Nguni), South Africa. Mace Neufeld & Helen Katz Neufeld '53 Collection of African & Oceanic Art.
"Cache Sexe; Pubic apron/girdle. Glass beads, metal, textile. Zulu (Northern Nguni), South Africa
"Mirror. Wood, glass, paint. Yoruba, Nigeria. Mace Neufeld & Helen Katz Neufeld '53 Collection of African & Oceanic Art.
"Cosmetic Box with Female Figure. Wood. Baule, Ivory Coast. Mace Neufeld & Helen Katz Neufeld '53 Collection of African & Oceanic Art.
"Cache Sexe; Pubic apron/girdle. Glass beads, metal, textile. Zulu (Northern Nguni), South Africa. Mace Neufeld & Helen Katz Neufeld '53 Collection of African & Oceanic Art.
"Cache Sexe without band. Glass beads, textile. Zulu (Northern Nguni), South Africa. Mace Neufeld & Helen Katz Neufeld '53 Collection of African & Oceanic Art.

All of the objects chosen for this exhibition reflect women's roles in African society and have been included because of their beauty and meaning concerning African women. Objects such as the six Drinking Vessels (c. 1900), serve as unique symbols within the Yaka Culture of Zaire. The drinking-vessels may have been used during rituals celebrating women's rites of passage, most likely the rite of marriage. The motifs carved on one or both sides of the vessels are a hallmark of authenticity. The carvings depict the semblance of an antelope horn as a representation of power, and the Hemba charm symbolizes the human face. The double- mouthed feature of the drinking-vessel evolved from the gourd cup.

The large wooden spoon, a type made by Dan carvers of the Ivory Coast and eastern Liberia, was used for serving rice. This rice spoon may be a simplified, smaller version of a wunkirle. Women of the Dan culture who are admired for their hospitality and/or generosity are presented with a wunkirle, an oversized, wooden rice spoon featuring strong female legs as the handle.

Dan women may parade with wunkirles as well, another symbol of the Dan's gratitude toward the culture's women. Rice is a significant crop in Dan culture, and this rice spoon may have been used to serve rice to others visiting their village.

The carved wooden figurines and utilitarian objects originate from Western Africa and represent the countries of Nigeria, Ghana and the Ivory Coast (also referred to by its French name Côte d' Ivoire). Baule, Ashanti, Yoruba, Igbo, and Grebo are the cultures that are represented by these sculptures. These figures were chosen for this exhibition for their uniqueness and the way in which they represent the female figure. For example, the figure made by the Grebo has real human hair inlaid on the head, brow and pubic area and wears beaded jewelry similar to jewelry a Grebo woman would wear.

The Akan of Ghana, perceive the twelve hours of the day determined by sun light, as the time when women are "standing up alive". In the Akan culture, a standing figure correlates to light, life, and the time of mortality, which is often being depicted by the wooden figurines of females.

The Baule cosmetic box in the shape of a pot sitting on top of a neck rest, features a female head as the box lid. The elongated face has rounded features, scarification, and elaborate coiffure. A neck rest, such as the one this pot rests on would have been used as a pillow for a woman to sleep on so that her elaborate coiffure would not be disturbed while she slept. This cosmetic box could have been used to store shea butter, a cosmetic for the body.

The Igbo dish was used to hold body chalk while a masker painted their body white. Chalk white is used to signify the spirit world and used particularly during funeral and agricultural ceremonies. The dish features a beautiful Igbo female with her face painted white.

Fertility figures are commonly found in many cultures. The Fertility figures or dolls from the Ashanti and the Fante of Ghana would have been worn around the neck or carried by an expectant mother. It is thought that gazing upon these expressions of idealized beauty would produce a beautiful child.

The Turkana neckpiece from Kenya would have been worn exclusively by unmarried women during ceremonies or special occasions. The brightly colored beads and dynamic form indicated the young woman's single status.

Zulu (Northern Nguni) beadwork was used for both religious and ceremonial occasions and may have represented power, achievement, or valor. Beadwork may also express a number of cultural and symbolic meanings, including social position or significant personal achievement. Marital status, gender, age, or professional specialization may also be indicated by beadwork. The creation of beadwork often provided a source of income for African women and the beads themselves functioned as an important medium of exchange.

Beads from Southern Africa are highly valued because of their scarcity and beauty. Before the middle of the nineteenth century, most beads were made locally of materials such as wood, shell, animal teeth, seeds, clay, and brass. Brass beads were especially valued because they were made by smiths who were believed to have special powers. At the height of the Zulu empire between approximately 1890 and 1900, there was also a significant increase in the number of imported glass beads, which became integrated into Zulu social life.

These pieces provide examples of the ways in which beadwork may have been used to communicate meanings about their bearer. The pubic girdles displayed here from the Northern Nguni all comment on their wearers' gender, age, and marital status. The four pubic girdles shown here are made of glass beads and textiles, and would have been worn by young, unmarried girls.

This exhibition attempts to display the connection between African Art and culture. The pieces chosen for this exposition represent the maturating process of women. Research was an essential component in preparation for this showcase, because one of our principal objectives is to preserve the historical integrity of the objects. In addition, another endeavor is to provide spectators with rich contextual information that tells a story about the bearer, cultural significance of the pieces, and the intended uses. The message that Journeys through African Womanhood seeks to convey to the audience is that African Cultures are complex, and posses certain distinctions which make African Art genuinely unique in its own rite. It is our belief that African Art should be recognized for its contributions to the art world, because it embodies the history and heritage of a people. This exhibition demonstrates the value bestowed upon women in African societies, because they play instrumental and versatile roles in their communities as mothers, care-givers, and as powerful sources of learning.


Acknowledgements
This exhibition was made possible by the guidance of Tamara Johnston in collaboration with Nia Turner '05, Allie Petonic '05, Trecia Pottinger '03, Claudine Johnson '05, Amie Clair Raymond '05, and technical assistance from College Collection Assistants: Danielle Kurin '05, and Sarah Gettys '03, and Lauren Ward '03.

This exhibition would not have been possible without the generous gifts of African Art from:
Mace Neufeld and Helen Katz Neufeld '53
Margaret Feurer Plass '17
Hobson Pittman


Bryn Mawr College Art & Archaeology Collections.

Bryn Mawr College Home Page.