The Container as Woman
Containers are associated with the concept of motherhood in many cultures. Containers from the Yoruba people in Nigeria, the Highland people in New Guinea, and the Tlingit people of the Northwest Coast are highlighted here. Each container represents a functional object that serves a specific purpose within its own culture (Vogel, 14). Contextualizing the object allows for a greater understanding of the container, its use and meaning. A strictly aesthetic presentation encourages the audience to focus on the object's formal elements and visual distinctions, but does not allow the viewer to connect the object's visual characteristics with the beliefs and practices of its culture (Alpers, 30). Likewise, the display of comparable but culturally distinctive objects satisfies a need to "understand the contemporary world from a broad point of view of different cultural and historical traditions" (Jonaitis, 58). Moreover, it provides the viewer with an opportunity to make connections across cultures, to encourage an understanding of the universality of many aspects of life as well as the "cultural relativity of one's own concepts and values" (Baxandall, 40; See also Alpers, 32). This ongoing "contact" with cultures other than our own helps to shape how we perceive others in the future and how we interpret the role we play in our own societies.

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Nigeria, Southern Ekiti Yoruba. Divination Cup, agere Ifa. Wood. 19th Century. H. 12 1/2 in. Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Davis.
(Picture source: Fagg & Pemberton pl.15)

A divination cup holds the 16 sacred palm nuts, ikin, that a priest uses in his divination rites. In these rituals, he communicates with Orunmila, the god who knows the secret of creation and the destiny of every human. Since women, as mothers, are associated with creation, it is fitting that a female is pictured with a child on her back kneeling in prayer to Orunmila. In Yoruba art, most devotees are represented as women. The juxtaposition of religious and domestic roles emphasizes the  interconnectedness of woman's importance in ritual and domestic spheres. As a mother takes care of her children, so she "takes care of" the sacred palm nuts by holding up the cup. By having children, women maintain the community and preserve stability. The carving evokes this stability and order through the verticality of her posture and formal elements of carving, notably "through symmetry and the parallel lines of the mother's head, breasts, and thighs with the child's arms and legs" 
(Drewal, Pemberton, and Abiodun, 196).
Queen Charlotte Islands, Haida -  Northwest Coast. Chest. Wood and paint. Before 1900. 81.8 x 48.2 x 47.3 Artist and collection unknown. (Picture Source: Macnair, Hoover, & Neary, p.29)

In Northwest Coast thought, houses, boxes, and bodies are all closed containers that contain such valuables as property, knowledge, and human inhabitants (Kan, 63). All bear formline designs on their facades that symbolize rank and that reinforce their association with one another. The box serves as a metaphor for the lineage house where women are associated with the center, or "womb," indicating women's role in biological reproduction and the parallel role of the lineage in cultural reproduction. It is also a model for the body, with the markings on its surface reflecting the domination of the body by society in order that people act in a moral, self-restrained, and dignified way (Kan, 58). At more mundane levels, chests (smaller, squarer versions of bentwood boxes) are used for storage of food, clothing, ceremonial regalia  and tools, but can also be used as utensils for cooking and serving food because they are airtight, oil-tight, and vermin-proof (Holm, 65). The use of chests and boxes in domestic circumstances evoke women's roles as preparers of food and bringers of wealth to their families.


Papua New Guinea, Wahgi Highland. Kangep carrying her child in a netbag (kon mengel). 20th Century.
Photo: Michael O'Hanlon, 1990.

Only women make netbags in New Guinea. They knot string or yarn to make the bags and decorate them with dyed designs, most commonly, patterns of different colored horizontal stripes. People use them for both work and dress. Women carry food from their gardens, items bought at the market, and children in netbags--as shown in this image. Others are used for decorative purposes, worn to the market or such festivals   as bridewealth payment ceremonies. Sometimes they give newly made bags as gifts. Carrying a child in a netbag emphasizes a woman's biological role as mother.  Elsewhere in New Guinea, the word "netbag" is sometimes used as a synonym for bride and womb. A netbag may also serve as a visual metaphor for the womb, focusing attention on women's role as "natural" creator in contrast with men as "cultural" creators (Forge, 189)

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