Collection Highlight: Fertility Figure

The Art of Daily Life: Portable Objects from Southeast Africa
is on view at the museum from April 16, 2011 until February 26, 2012. The exhibition features a selection of about 75 personal and household objects from Southeast Africa. We asked Constantine Petridis, Curator of African Art, to discuss one of his favorites in the exhibition. Here he discusses a fertility figure from Lesotho.

What is it?

Though commonly called "dolls," fertility figures are not children's playthings. They are an expression of the desire to bear children and were used to promote fertility or, more typically, to cure barrenness. Because they were cared for by a young bride as she would for her future children, they are sometimes also called child figures.

What is it made of?

This stylized representation of the human body consists of a wooden core carved by a man wrapped by a woman in cloth covered with intricate beadwork designs. The abstract, geometric patterns of its beaded designs and the bold color sequences point to its Southern Sotho origin.

Aside from earlier imports from China, India, and the Near East, glass beads made in Bohemia and Venice were introduced in southeast Africa by the Portuguese and English from the 16th century onwards. Because they were rare and expensive, and therefore also used as currency throughout the 19th century, they indicated wealth and prestige.

How old is it?

The color scheme of this striking example as well as the use of sinew--derived from the shoulder area of an ox or goat--rather than cotton to string the beads, seem to confirm a 19th-century date of manufacture.

How was it used?

The mother-to-be would carry the figure on her back and sleep with it until her first child was born. However, rather than representing a child, the figures take the form of an adult woman capable of procreation.

The female gender of this figure--which was once in the collection of the renowned London art collector Jonathan Lowen--can be determined on the basis of its hairdo, beaded dress, and other ornaments. Traditionally, after they had served their purpose, such figures would either be destroyed or left at sacred sites as offerings to the spirits.


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