Many of the objects in “A Perfect Power” feature elongated breasts, traditional scarifications (tribal-specific scarring) on faces and wombs, and other characteristics that signify fertility and gendered power. Yet these works offer more than simple tropes: They indicate African women’s leadership, particularly in the face of the transatlantic slave trade. The sculptures’ gendered elements point to what the exhibition’s organizers call “mother power”—a transformational potency rooted in care, which could be used to activate objects that would ultimately help people survive. “Mother power” was integral to the societies that made and revered these objects.
“Women were…absolutely critical for maintaining continuity in the face of massive depopulation and violence,” said Dr. Oghenetoja Okoh, a consultant to the exhibition and an assistant professor of history at Loyola University Maryland. As the transatlantic slave trade ravaged large segments of the African continent for two centuries, communities had to develop new strategies to sustain themselves. Women were already crucial to many social networks, but as men were stolen away, they took on increasingly important roles. The iconography in the exhibition’s sculptural works suggests just how important women were to the health, balance, and power of their communities.
While the exhibition centers on the past, its curatorial team comprises contemporary women who are changing the way we think about indigenous African societies. Female anthropologists, historians, and theoreticians such as Dr. Ifi Amadiume and Dr. Oyěwùmí have explored how these communities embraced fluid formulations of power and gender—before rigid, Western colonial ideas took hold. In many indigenous African societies, feminine and masculine power coexist, and often act in concert.