Art Through Time: A Global View
The Body Art: Shrine Vessel
Among the Ga’anda (also known as Mokar) people of Nigeria and Chad, vessels such as this one are created to house ancestral spirits.
Around the world, pots, vases, and other containers are often seen as metaphors for the female body. With its long neck and round belly, the Ga’anda shrine vessel represents a specific woman, while alluding, through symbols such as incised cowrie shells, to the fertility and reproductive capacities of women more generally.
Around the lower body of the vessel are designs representing the ritual scarification marks that Ga’anda girls receive at different stages in their progression toward womanhood starting at age five. These marks, called hleeta, are created with rows of small, closely-placed cuts. When healed, these cuts form a raised dot pattern. Scarification becomes increasingly elaborate at each step in the girl’s initiation rites and is linked to bridewealth payments by the girl’s future husband. Once scarification is complete, the girl is considered to be mature enough for marriage. In addition to their symbolic function, signifying the girl’s reproductive readiness to the community, hleeta are also associated with sensuality and beauty. The presence of these marks on the shrine vessel—the only decorative element on the object—suggests their profound social and cultural significance.
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.”
Berns, Marla C. “Ga’anda Scarification: A Model for Art and Identity.” In Marks of Civilization: Artistic Transformations of the Human Body, edited by Arnold Rubin, 57–76. Los Angeles: Museum of Cultural History, University of California, 1988.
Berns, Marla C. “Ga’anda Scarification: A Model for Art and Identity.” In Visible Self: Global Perspectives on Dress, Culture, and Society, edited Joanne Bubolz Eicher, et al, 261–268. New York: Fairchild Publications, 2000.
Gröning, K. Body Decoration: A World Survey of Body Art. New York: Vendome Press, 1998.
Sasser, Elizabeth Skidmore. The World of Spirits and Ancestors in the Art of Western Sub-Saharan Africa. Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 1995.
Visona, Monica B., et al. A History of Art in Africa, 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2007.