Mother as Creator: A Perfect Power at the BMA

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Matrilineal societies in Africa celebrate the mother as a guardian, saint, and unstoppable creative force. They recognize that mothers share a bond with their children that transcends physical life and death. What we understand as the role of “mother” within the matrilineal belt of Africa is bigger than one person’s gender. In fact, it takes many people to fulfill the roles of motherhood in their entirety. 

The Baltimore Museum of Art’s exhibition, A Perfect Power: Motherhood and African Art, is filled with ritual objects that celebrate the creative force of the mother. The show’s broad subject matter, sculpture from African matrifocal societies, offers a mixture of sociology and art that isn’t easy to fit into any genre or category. The exhibition compelled me to assess family and gender roles very differently from what I’m used to in the West, offering a transnational message that can teach us how feminism and advocacy can appear in different forms that are culturally specific. Within African societies where the mother has a more dominant role, neither the mother nor her related rights are seen as a liability in a man’s world. Instead, motherhood and child-rearing are not individual responsibilities, but functions of the community. 

The call to mother changes faces—and masks—in different circumstances, societies, and ceremonies. According to the museum, most of the objects on view in A Perfect Power were made in the 1900s, and used by men to access ancestral power that reached far beyond that of colonization.

The original artists who created the nearly 40 pieces on display are not as well-known as their Western custodians. One-third of the objects came from the BMA’s permanent collection, another third came from private collections, and the rest came from other institutions, such as the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Most of the African societies represented were located in Zambia, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and Guinea. Collectively, the objects in the show celebrate the role and responsibilities of “mother,” both within and in defiance of a Westernized context.

By their nature, the objects themselves can only give us a partial view. “A lot of these objects only have power and meaning… within a performance context,” says Kevin Tervala, the BMA’s Associate Curator of African art. “This mask doesn’t mean anything unless it is danced with the raffia costume, with the drumming, with the stilts that the performer is wearing. A lot of the power that is inhabited in these artworks is located in a multisensory or artistic complex that hasn’t been translated.”


Foreground: Baga / Buluñits Great Mother Headdress (D'mba), Late 19th-early-20th century Guinea, possibly Monchon Village, Wood, copper alloy tacks, iron tacks
Punu Female Ancestor Masks, early 20th century, wood and pigment

Additionally, a great deal of what we know of Africa as a continent has been curated and stewarded by Anglo-European historians and writers. Indigenous writers and historians, such as Alexis Kagame of Rwanda, have largely been censored from fully sharing their own points of view. And Tervala, who is currently researching how colonial-era agricultural practices in Kenya devastated the region, had the wisdom of asking primary sources for advice.

To that end, Dr. Oyeronke Oyewumi, a Yoruba scholar and professor at Stonybrook University, provided the intellectual superstructure, along with other writers from Africa and its diaspora such as Diedre Badejo and Filomena Chioma Steady. Oyewumi’s 1997 book, The Invention of Women (with a cover by longtime collaborator, art historian Nkiru Nzegwu), is a sociology classic that orients gender as a Western construction and thus “offers a new way of understanding both Yoruban and Western cultures.” 

Due to colonialism, the concept of gender within Yoruba and other matrifocal societies has shifted. In the exhibition statement, Tervala mentions that the majority of the masks on display—such as the well-promoted Grand Mother (or D’mba) array from the Baga people of Guinea or the wonderfully beaded Kuba female ancestor mask from the DRC—were worn and performed by men of the 20th century. Viewing the exhibition, I wondered how these male-exclusive performances, or the configuration of the objects themselves, were affected by colonialism. Did these rituals or objects exist in these forms before European contact? At this point, the answer is unknowable, due to the violent history of African cultural erasure

This show is beautiful, but it made me want to understand the historical “record” versus the actual facts behind how these objects came to be. For me, this beauty also conceals pain; colonization spurred massive environmental and social change onto multiple societies. I’d like to think that all the unknown people who created the objects in the show made them in defiance of that pain, which is cultural resilience, power perfected and personified.

And I wish, for that reason, that the show had focused even more on the why behind the objects and fleshed out the various contexts that influenced the objects’ creation. Within the exhibition itself, I would have liked to see more from Oyewumi beyond her name on a wall, and more representation beyond the video clip that featured Dr. Oghenetoja Okoh, of Loyola University of Maryland, whose father is of Yoruba descent. During my visit with the curator, my attention was not drawn to any Yoruba artwork, but I think that an additional focus on Yoruba culture could help target curious audiences and reel them in.

After Covid-19 closures at the museum, the show resumed this month, and the books and writings germane to the featured societies, such as Oyewumi’s 2015 book What Gender is Motherhood?, are available to read (or purchase online). Sometimes, the most important parts of an exhibition, as Tervala said, aren’t the objects themselves, but in the much larger and older stories behind any object’s given meaning. Additionally, relying on the living history of African cultures provided the missing “meaning” that I was searching for. There are people with direct access to these living histories of the ritual objects on display. Any collection that does not center the living voice, however, is incomplete.


Digital Gallery with Interviews and Exhibition Images
Kuba Female Ancestor Mask (Ngaady Mwaash), Late 19th-early 20th century, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Wood, cloth, copper alloy tacks, plant fibers, cowrie shells, glass beads, paint
Baga / Buluñits Great Mother Headdress (D'mba), Late 19th-early-20th century Guinea, possibly Monchon Village, Wood, copper alloy tacks, iron tacks

One of the most important things that a living voice such as Oyewumi can do is show us how the symbols can be misinterpreted by outside forces. In this show and within her work, Oyewumi asserts that past Western researchers could not see beyond their own sex biases, which resulted in asking leading questions that only confirmed their own worldview. Anthropologists and feminists alike tend to fall into this trap; however, the sociological study of African matrifocal societies can offer a unique view of how female power differs across cultures.

“Many of those concepts [that are used to describe Africa and its material culture] distort, rather than illuminate,” Oyewumi told me in an interview last November. “When people talk about matrilineality, they’re literally talking about societies that  trace the lineage through the mother, [in the same] way in which the so-called patrilineal cultures trace through the father. There are anthropological papers from the ’50s and ’60s that claim matrilineality is going out of fashion, where westerners treat matrilineality as unnatural.”

“I say this to make the point that I am not fixated on the word ‘matrilineality’ or even ‘patrilineality’ [or ‘lineage’ in general] because I think it’s problematic when you look at the whole cultures of Africa. So, the preferred term that comes out from my work is that African society is ‘matrifocal,’ or ‘matricentric.’ The most important pivot around which so much revolves, in any community, is the mother.” 

In her book The Invention of Women, Oyewumi adds that colonialism designated women and their identities through their proximity to a man, giving birth to what she calls an oxymoron that feels like it came into popular use alongside the rise of feminism in America: the single mother. The dyad that originally was the most important, in African culture, is the mother and child. This concept is personified through multiple sculptures in the show, such as a caryatid headrest from the Luba people of the DRC and a smaller figurine from Guinea. These figurines display a critical point about how mothers are seen in matrifocal Africa.

“From an African perspective,” Oyewumi says, “and as a matter of fact, mothers by definition cannot be single. In most cultures, motherhood is defined as a relationship to progeny, not as a sexual relationship with a man.” She adds that the “patriarchal nuclear family” structure “is inappropriately universalized.”

In other words, it always takes a village to raise a child. A mother is a multitude, a community. 


Senufo Female Ancestral Figure (Pòròpya), 1950s, Côte d'Ivoire, Wood (from digital gallery)
Possibly Kaseya Tambwe Makumbi (d. 1985?) Culture: Eastern Pende region Rooftop Figure (Kishikishi), 1950s-1970s, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Wood, pigment

The show takes care to describe the physicality of the objects, their provenance and surface relativity to the African culture they represented; however, I became more interested in exploring how the role and representation of women in these societies has shifted over time.

The Luba pieces, which hail from the DRC, are a perfect example of this confusion. The caption for the Warua Master piece, for instance, states, “The Luba King that sat on this throne was literally and figuratively supported by a woman.” Then it concludes with, “…upon the death of a king, it was believed that the royal spirit moved into the body of a woman.” Believed by whom? For how long? And what did they do before said piece existed, before the late 18th-early 19th century in which it was made? 

Another object, the ceremonial staff from that same region, indicates how much modern culture differs from the precolonial era. The wall text mentions a Luba descendant, Nsenga Ubandilwa, who states, “[The staff’s design] is like a sign or memory of the woman who brought royalty to us.” Within Oyewumi’s book, she makes repeated reference to how colonial contact, and its restricted emphasis on sexual binaries, worked to undo and erase the older traditions that put women in power. The mother power, in its pre-contact form, thoroughly threatened colonial powers’ forays into different parts of the continent—here, the Belgian conquest over Congo. Over time, with the necessary change to the societies in Africa, much was lost or altered. Only cryptic references remain—such as “the king is a woman”—to show how things used to be less based on sexual roles, and more on the seniority of the most qualified individual.

To this end, I recall Oyewumi as she asks a question in her book. “[African scholars] do not account for the said desire of men to tame women. Where does this desire come from? Is it natural?” Furthermore, is such a desire innate in every society on earth, as natural as having ten fingers and ten toes? Oyewumi, in her research, rejects that supposition. Moreover, she has found that researchers imposing Western standards of gender have overwritten the indigenous seniority-based systems of power, distorting the reality and knowledge of what is at the core of any given African society. 


A Perfect Power at the BMA, gallery view
The Pregnant Chief, Culture: Hemba, Commemorative Portrait of a Chief (Singiti), Late 19th-early 20th century, Wood
Chokwe, Female Ancestor Mask (Mwana Pwo), Early-mid 20th century, Wood, fiber

The most accessible example that Oyewumi cites to support this argument of non-binary erasure is language. Within Yoruba, there is no designation for son, daughter, or even husband or wife. Instead, all of these roles within what would be a Western nuclear family are gender-neutral, with emphasis on seniority. Multiples of the same role can exist in a collective family, in fact. This is different from the nuclear or individualist family structure. Such a collective environment can closely, but not exactly, feel similar to how, say, a child can be raised with three fathers. The child belongs to a family unit, as opposed to one father and one mother. With the Yoruba and other matrifocal cultures, multiple partners were jointly responsible for the upkeep of the household. Sexual roles and gender, in this context, become less meaningful.  

Iya, which is often translated as the primary mother figure within a larger familial group, is also the focal point of the Yoruba religion. The idea of Iya as a source of inspiration and power is the unnamed central focus of A Perfect Power, but its exact etymology deserves a separate exhibition, not a passing summation. It is, according to Oyewumi, an “entity who incubates and gives birth to an already existing soul… [with] the Iya-child relationship… constructed as longer, stronger, and deeper than any other.” 

Ashe—the popular phrase in African-American pop culture—is also the source of Iya’s vital force, from their unique role in creating human life. In times of crisis, people draw on mother power as a creative force with authority. It is not binarily opposite to the role that men play (who usually use the honorific “baba”), but the Iyas collective power was given to them by Olodumare, the Supreme Being of Heaven. 

“You know what I find interesting, even though I’m documenting coloniality overall?” Oyewumi asked. “Our language still resists gendering.” Instead, the Yoruba take gendered loan words from English to communicate within the post-colonial social context. This is a separate issue from determining the difference of reproductive organs, which do not carry the hierarchical meanings we assign in the West. Put it this way: In English, “woman” always uses “man” as a part of its construction, becoming its derivative. For the Yoruba, the reproductive roles and identities merely exist as separate functions to create life.


Gallery view of A Perfect Power
Senufo Tyekpa Maternity Figure, Late 19th century, Wood
Baule Comb, Early 20th century Côte d'Ivoire Wood

The original oneness of Yoruba gender is therefore described by ethnographers as a man dressing up as this “mother power.” When one understands that a supreme creative force is the inspiration, one ends up with the “meaning” for the objects in the show.

Within the Yoruba and larger matrifocal truth of Africa, “transgender” is an important designation. It is not envisioned within the hypersexual context that the West favors, though. Instead of referring to “changing” from male to female, it emphasizes the need for fluidity in the first place. Within the rituals described in A Perfect Power, this fluidity is evident. Rigid Victorian mores, additionally, designated men to be the only ones in the public sphere. Oyewumi further muses, “I wonder where [Yoruba society] would have gone [had it evolved on its own], because a lot of trans people find comfort in my work.” 

Ultimately, it was incredibly affirming for me to see how gender is not always a universally held construct. Women in power is a socially understood fact that has made it into my own DNA, even when the official records of what was have burned into dust. Focusing on the binary differences, on the other hand, only reinforces patriarchal power that depends on rigid masculinity. 

A Perfect Power, and the subsequent research, discovery process, and interviews I’ve done to understand more from it, constitutes one of the steepest learning curves I’ve ever experienced. I took this assignment as an opportunity to explore my indigeneity right after I’d worked on a series of dialogues that featured the groundbreaking race and colonial theory work of American Indigenous activists such as Kyle Whyte and Michelle Montgomery. Without fully informing myself of the politics of place, environmental justice, and the concept of data sovereignty, I probably would have approached this project through the traditional academic lenses that I’ve been trained in. 

The ability to tell your own story is power personified, and for it to be listened to and believed, without the co-opting of Western elites to give that voice legitimacy, should be normal rather than the exception to the rule. Moreover, the Western-defined roles of what a man does, or what a woman should be, fall by the wayside of a holistic understanding that we are all human, where one “gender” cannot exist without the other. Recognizing our oneness, in this way, can help us understand our past and move forward, together. 


Baga / Buluñits Great Mother Headdress (D'mba), Late 19th-early-20th century Guinea, possibly Monchon Village, Wood, copper alloy tacks, iron tacks

More information:

A Perfect Power: Motherhood and African Art has been extended to March 7, 2021. Visits are by appointment only. Next best thing: watch the video courtesy of the BMA. Photos courtesy of the BMA and by Cara Ober.


Header Image: Kuba Female Ancestor Mask (Ngaady Mwaash), Late 19th-early 20th century, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Wood, cloth, copper alloy tacks, plant

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