Meanings, typology and function of these objects
Fertility dolls, a tradition common to the whole African continent, represent the future of a society. Their beautifully crafted forms promise the continuation of its history, traditions, and aesthetics.
Fertility dolls: from play to magic
The social structure of African societies attaches prime importance to the family, even though socio-economic changes are challenging this deep-rooted concept, both in Africa and around the world. African art objects, and classical African art in general, reflect the various facets of a society’s cultural foundations. Among them, the importance of a patriarchal or matriarchal lineage appears as the backbone of a community. An unborn baby represents the continuity of a group, the transmission of its values; each individual is a link in the chain of a family, of a structured group, and has ancestors who all encourage him or her to perpetuate the line.
“Callipaedia,” which can be defined as “the art of getting pretty children,” plays a fundamental role in the creation of objects that will favor the birth of beautiful offspring, strong enough to grow in good health and ensure the safety of the group, to guarantee it a certain form of power and the protection of the parents in their old age. The universal desire for beautiful children is given expression in several African societies through objects incarnating that ideal. Such objects, imbued with magical powers, are the best means of boosting young women’s fertility.
All over the world, dolls are usually intended for use by little girls, as a means of teaching them their society’s expectations with regard to their future role as mothers. They also display the main characteristics of the prevailing beauty standards – another feature shared by fertility dolls. There is one significant difference, however: in Africa, dolls are less often playthings than magical objects, used by women of childbearing age.
Fertility dolls are found all over in Africa
The Akua’ba of Ghana are the most famous fertility dolls, but they are not the only ones. The Attie people of the Ivory Coast have a preference for rounded forms, firmly planted on the ground, with an emphasis on the female attributes. The Bagirmi people of Chad carve dolls with round heads, conical breasts, stump-like arms, and bases rather than legs. The Dowayo / Namji people of Cameroon adorn their amulet-dolls with bead necklaces; those without necklaces are simple toys. Among the Ntwane and Ngwato of South Africa, dolls are made of woven plant fibers, leather, beads, and sometimes gourds. The Mossi dolls of Burkina Faso have clear-cut, surprisingly modern lines.
Africa has almost as many fertility dolls as large cultural groups. For African classical art enthusiasts, they represent a rich source of insight into the diversity and vitality of African art forms.
To go further:
Herbert M. Cole, Maternity: Mothers and Children in the Arts of Africa, Mercator Fonds, 2017