African Universals

Our common homeland, Africa, is the source of so much art that helps us better understand the human condition. We can think of no more fitting way to end our year focused on what makes us human than to return to the source of our humanity–Africa. This series of three events features talks on expressions of mother-child imagery and how these images provide a window into the realms of politics, philosophy, and worldview; art connected to rites of passage that ease transitions in life; and five archetypes that transcend all societies.

All of these programs feature the esteemed expert in African art, Prof. Herbert (Skip) Cole who has held fellowship from NEH, the Smithsonian, and the Ford Foundation.

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As we prepare to honor our mothers, AIA examines the deep cultural expression of motherhood in African art. Images of mothers and children are iconic art forms found throughout the African continent that celebrate the biological phenomena of childbirth and nurture.  At the same time, these are deeply cultural expressions with vital spiritual, political, and cosmological dimensions. Explore the rich symbolism of African maternities, as well as variations in materials and forms and discover the African inflections of an archetype of world-wide distribution.

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Rites of Passage
African masks have been around since the beginning of man, at least before the Paleolithic era.  Considered by many to be among the finest creations in the art world, these masks can be seen in museums and art galleries around the globe.  But what is the actual meaning behind the masks?

These masks have an important role in two of the most significant African rites of passage: initiations to adulthood and funerary rituals that send the dead to afterlife in the ancestral world. These are periods of uncertainty and anxiety that require the presence of the gods and spirits–embodied in masks–to help stabilize the social order. At this talk, discover how dramatic masquerades both entertain and help effect change for the participants.

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Universal Icons
Icons appear in African art that have universal meaning and significance.

Male and female couples appear in creation stories and as the basis for social life; the mother-and-child group is the origin of family and of culture itself; forceful males, with weapons, are the heroes of legend and history; horsemen are “riders of power,” the revered heroes among people and the gods; the stranger, with one foot outside the community and the other inside, is revered as culture-bringer, yet feared as different.

Discover how these five icons or themes are recurrent in African thought, ritual, political life, and the arts, and how they are widespread and historically persistent.                                                                                                            

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Join us to celebrate the African source of universals of humanity.

Mothering – The Womb of Culture , 6:30 pm, May 19, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Rites of Passage – African Art for Life and Afterlife, 7:00 pm, May 20, The Jung Center

Icons in African Art – Five Universal Themes, 4:00 pm, May 22, The Women’s Institute

Information:   please call 713.364.6344 or visit our website at

AIA-Houston is grateful for Annette Bracey and Greg McCord for their support that helped make these events possible.