African images of maternity and visualizing birth
Dr. Herbert Cole, Professor Emeritus in Art History at the University of California, Santa Barbara and author of Maternity: Mothers and Children in the Arts of Africa (2017), has written extensively over several decades about fertility, birth and mothering in the context of African art and material culture.
Cole has looked at a wide and complex range of images across different cultural contexts in African. Yet, he states that across these cultures, “Of all the archetypal themes in African art, the mother-and-child is the most fundamental, widespread, and important. These values stem partly from two obvious and unremarkable facts–we are all children and we all were born to mothers” (See Cole’s The Complexity of Maternity in Africa).
Although Cole’s work focuses more on mother-and-child images, the author’s image collection includes several powerful depictions of birth. Through our correspondences, Cole has sent the two shown here to me, both of which are from mbari houses in the Owerri region of Southeast Nigeria (see above and below). These houses are sacred houses that the Owerri-Igbo, an ethnic group in Nigeria, create as a sacrificial gift to Ala (Earth), an all important goddess and highest deity in Igbo culture, as well as to other local deities.
In both images, we see birth attendants aiding the laboring women. In her research on pre-colonial Nigeria, Ogechukwu Ezekwem Williams, an Assistant Professor of History at Creighton University, has shown how midwives played an important role in Nigeria’s birth rituals, as well as how the traditions of birth were influential in the larger ritualistic traditions of Igbo culture and spirituality. Williams explains how British colonialism ruptured the wholeness of this ritual life when missionaries changed the primary birthing space of Igbo women to that of the hospital. However, contemporary birth practices have begun to reincorporate spirituality and tradition into the rite of passage.
Large-scale studies on midwifery care and doula support for pregnant and laboring women show that these forms of care are highly effective in providing positive maternity care (see notes section). Images such as Cole’s remind the viewer of the supportive environment in which birth can take place.
Cole’s images also both depict the birthing women seated in semi-reclined positions. In one of the images, we see the child crowning from the woman as she approaches the final moments of birth. These are helpful representations for other pregnant or laboring women to view, reminding others that there are many positions in which one can give birth. Fully reclined in a hospital bed with legs raised is not the ideal position for birth.
To view more powerful images of birth, mothering and mother-child representations, see Herbert Cole’s book, Maternity: Mothers and Children in the Arts of Africa. Information on Cole’s work may also be found on Artstor or through the University of California, Santa Barbara Art History website.