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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

Additional Resources

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.

Shrine Vessel

» Ga’anda artist, Nigeria/Chad

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.

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