The Art of Love: Maternity Themes in Tribal Art

The maternity instinct has been immortalized in the art of all cultures through the centuries. Arguably, the most primal expression of maternity is found in tribal art, that is, the art of societies which have been relatively untouched by modern civilizations, and thus are closer to the Edenic ideal of what we conceive as primal. In this exhibition, I share a few examples of tribal art with the maternity theme. While far from exhaustive, I hope the objects featured in this exhibition will rekindle our awe and respect for the maternity instinct and the art it so inspires.

Maternity figure, Sumba, stone, early 20th century, H: 34 in. Presented by Thomas Murray at the 2014 Parcour des Mondes tribal art fair, Paris.

The people of Sumba, a large island in eastern Indonesia, is known for their magnificent textiles and stone sculptures that encode powerful symbols of fertility, status, and the spirit world. Here, the artist has given a primitive, yet modern-looking abstract expression to fertility in the form of a mother tenderly holding a child. This large stone sculpture most likely served as a memorial to a recently deceased ancestor. 

Seated ancestor holding a child, Sakalava people, Madagascar, wood, 19th – early 20th century, H: 21 in. Presented by Thomas Murray in the 2014 Parcour des Mondes tribal art fair, Paris.

This beautiful sculpture from Madagascar would have been placed on the perimeter of a graveyard, serving to protect the dead from the living and the living from the dead. The sculptures of Madagascar, which lies thousands of kilometres from island Southeast Asia, strongly resemble the Dayak sculptures of Kalimantan, Indonesia. This resemblance is not a coincidence; both cultures share an Austronesian ancestry that dates to thousands of years.

Maternity charm, Dayak tribe, Kalimantan, Indonesia, wood, 19th-early 20th century, H: 7.75 in. Presented by Thomas Murray at the 2014 Parcour des Mondes tribal art fair, Paris.

This small maternity figure from Kalimantan, Indonesia, has a larger-than-life presence that recalls the much larger ancestral wood sculptures known as hampatongs. The child on the mother’s back harks back to an early artistic style.

Mother and father charm, Dayak tribe, Kalimantan, Indonesia, wood, 19th – early 20th century, M: 6 in; F: 5.5 in. Presented by Thomas Murray at the 2014 Parcour des Mondes tribal art fair, Paris.
Left” Standing maternity figure, Dogon people, Mali, Africa, wood. 15th-17th century, H: 49 in. Right: Standing maternity figure, Dogon people, Mali, Africa, 18th century, H: 18 in. Presented by Tambaran Gallery, New York, September 2022.

Dogon sculpture is primarily concerned with the spirits responsible for the fertility of both land and people. These include a family’s real and mythical ancestors, the souls of women who died in childbirth, and water spirits. While the exact functions and meanings of individual works often remain obscure, scholars agree that Dogon sculptures were created for shrines.

The most distinctive subject rendered by Dogon sculptures is that of a single figure standing with raised arms as in the figure on the left. This posture has usually been interpreted as a gesture of prayer—an effort to link earth and heavens—and it has been suggested that it may represent an appeal for rain.

Mother and child figure, possibly Borneo (late Bronze Age), collected in Flores, Indonesia, bronze, 25.8 x 22.8 x 15.2 cm. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

Known as the Bronze Weaver, this unique bronze figure of a mother nursing her baby is special in many ways. First, although found in Flores, it is believed to have been made in Borneo more than a thousand kilometres to the east, testifying to very old trade routes that existed between far-flung parts of Indonesia. Second, the figure was cast in the 6th century, quite some time after the Dong Son bronze era of north Vietnam had dissipated and it reflects an artistic style that was clearly indigenous to Borneo at the time, Third, the mother, who is clad in a knee-length skirt is depicted working on a back-strap loom, confirming the antiquity of the textiles weaving practice in Borneo, and possibly other regions of the large Indonesian archipelago. The Bronze Weaver therefore, is not just an image of fecundity; it is also a record of many cultural traits that have shaped the incredibly rich culture of Indonesia for thousands of years.

A frontal view of the Bronze Weaker discovered in Flores.
Mother and child figure, New Britain, off eastern Papua New Guinea, wood. H: 20 cm.

The tender love between and child is expressed in a minimalist style in this small sculpture from New Britain that brings to mind the works of modernist artists like Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore.



Objects 1 through 4 are from Thomas Murray, “Pairs, Couples, and Maternity: The Art of Two”, 2014, while object 5 is featured in an Instagram post by Tambaran Gallery, New York. The Bronze Weaver mother and child figure is from the website of the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. The last object belongs to the collector/dealer Paul Lewis in Australia.

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