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13 / The Body

Shrine Vessel
Shrine Vessel
Artist / Origin Ga’anda artist, Nigeria/Chad
Region: Africa
Date 20th century
Material Terracotta
Medium: Ceramics
Dimensions H: 19.5 in. (49.5 cm.), D: 12 in. (30.5 cm.)
Location The Newark Museum, Newark, NJ
Credit Courtesy of the Newark Museum

expert perspective

Marla C. BernsDirector, Fowler Museum at UCLA

Shrine Vessel

» Ga’anda artist, Nigeria/Chad

expert perspective

Marla C. Berns Marla C. Berns Director, Fowler Museum at UCLA

Pottery is often talked about in the same language as one would talk about the body. Pots have bodies themselves. Then they have necks. They have mouths. They have lips. If they have handles, they’re considered to be arms. If they have bases, they’re like feet. And so there is this kind of metaphorical relationship between the vessel and the body. And, of course, the roundness of a vessel is like the roundness of a woman’s body. It’s a receptacle in the same way that a woman can be a womb and can be a receptacle for a new life. The fact that the human body is our primary canvas for modification and for ornamentation and how the human body becomes a kind of template for decorating other kinds of objects, that our sensitivity to our own form, our capacity as human beings to modify it, which no other species has but the human species, and that reference point of the body finds its way into all kinds of categories of objects.

If you look at sculptural traditions you see that there are figurative sculptures which look like people, but look like people in very specific ways where salient aspects of how those actual communities look get translated into a work of art.

I think for me, it’s this fundamental capacity to transform and to aestheticize that begins with the body and then moves into other categories of objects. So that the body would seem to me to have been the first canvas for this kind of transformation. And that the body becomes a transmitter of information in and of itself. And what I found particularly interesting where I did my own fieldwork is that the spirits who these people—the Ga’anda—believe in are represented by ceramic vessels. This is an area where they did not do wood sculpture, but rather their most powerful spirit forces were contained in pots. And pots, like people, are irreversibly transformed, but this way their clay is transformed through fire into ceramic.

But the surfaces of these pots are scarified in the same way that the bodies of women are scarified. So you see on these pots these very tight decorative elements which reproduce—sometimes even in the methodology of their creation—the same process on the skin as you find on clay.

Typically, there are many different varieties of scarification programs that we see across West Africa and Central Africa, in particular. If we talk about the Ga’anda—at every stage of the scarification, it’s marked by some transfer of goods or some celebration. And at the end of it, after the young woman has healed, there’s a ceremony that occurs after the harvesting of the crops which is in conjunction with the celebration of the spirit guardians of the community. These young women emerge; they wear particular clothing and particular ornamentation and they’re presented to the community to mark that rite of passage. And after that point in time, they move to their husband’s household and they take up residence in their new family. But at the same time that they’re presented to the community and they dance and there’s a kind of celebration, those same young girls are allowed only one time in their lives to go to the most sacred place where all of those spirit pots are kept. So that they can have a kind of communion directly with those spirits in the hopes that they will be granted the gift of fertility so that they can continue the society into the future.” 

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