Women and the Arts of Africa

Women in a range of African societies have been recognized within their communities and by scholars as the creators of pottery and baskets, the designers of dyed and woven textiles, and the makers of beaded garments. Yet the profound relationship between women and the artworks of ritual life, including masks and sculpted figures, is often overlooked because woodcarvers and the performers and users of such objects are usually men. This installation highlights the central role women play as creators, subjects, and performers of African visual cultures. The ndoli jowei mask of the Mende, an idealization of female beauty, is a centerpiece of girls' initiation masquerades in the Sande society. The most distinctive feature of the Igbo ikenga, a shrine figure generally associated with men, is an openwork headdress of sacred pythons, the embodiment of the goddess Idemili. Among many South African peoples, the beading of belts, collars, and aprons for both men and women is the exclusive province of women. In the objects on view, we celebrate works produced by female artists and the profound influence of women on ritual and visual culture.