The Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) explores motherhood through African art in its latest exhibit. (Courtesy photo)

By Michelle Richardson
Arts & Entertainment Writer

“I am their mother. I gave birth to all the others.” Those words were spoken by Chief Kingange of Kaluma A Mbangu, Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1987. 

There is a reason why Africa is called the Motherland: it is the very birthplace of the human race. Africa is the “Mother of All Humanity” and the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) has carefully cultivated an exhibit exploring the power of motherhood through African art. 

A Perfect Power: Motherhood and African Art is an exhibition that demonstrates how this powerful visual iconography played an important role in the functioning societies of 18th, 19th and 20th-Century Africa. 

The exhibition includes nearly 40 artworks drawn from public and private collections from all over the world, and 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. 

“2020 vision provided the opportunity to consider the BMA’s collection through a new lens that has long fascinated me,” said Kevin Tervala, BMA associate curator of African art.  

A Perfect Power: Motherhood and African Art is curated by Tervala along with Oyèrónké Oyěwùmí, professor of Sociology, Africana and Women’s Studies at Stony Brook University and Jennifer Kingsley, director of the Museums and Society Program at Johns Hopkins University. 

“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 become clear,” Tervala explained.

“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,” stated Tervala. 

The exhibition opens with the five most common symbols artists use to explain “mother power:” pregnancy, prominent breasts, scarification, a bold glaze or the presence of a child. 

While the most known sign of motherhood is a rounded stomach, prominent breasts were used to signal the ability to sustain and nourish children. 

Decorative scars around the womb draw attention to the site of the origin of life, a bold gaze demonstrated the strength of mothers, and the presence of children in the statues represented the healthy futures of not only families, but whole communities. 

Included in the exhibition that demonstrates “mother power,” is the BMA’s own D’mba, a great mother headdress from the Baga culture in Guinea that weighs around 80 pounds.

D’mba, is a carved wooden headdress that 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. 

A museum favorite is the Singiti (Commemorative Portrait of a Chief), a male sculpture that appears pregnant. The sculpture wanted to mark the chief’s achievements by depicting him with the most direct sign of power: the ability to create life. 

“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 artist to the dialogues and narratives, 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 

“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 it’s significance across time and place,” Bedford added.

“A Perfect Power: Motherhood and African Art” is on display at the BMA from Sept. 30 through Jan. 17.