In planting season we begin to watch the moon closely,
just as we watch the months before giving birth to the child.
Without the moon, there would be no life.

John A. Kwashi, Ngas bard, Nigeria, 1974

The moon--its presence in the night sky, its journey as it rises and sets, and its light that reveals or hides human activity--is a potent metaphor in the verbal and visual arts of Africa. A feminine symbol in many African societies, the moon is often linked to life itself, through lunar cycles that align with human and agricultural fertility and that structure ritual calendars.

During the annual festival of Mos Tar (the beer of the moon), young "sons of the moon" are painted white like the moon, with drawn crescents and circles suggesting lunar phases.
Ngas peoples, Nigeria, 1974
Photograph by Frank Speed

Luba peoples, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Late 19th to early 20th century
Wood, brass tacks, copper alloy
National Museum of African Art, estate of Barbara and Joseph Goldenberg, 2011-4-2

Containers for surrogate moonlight. Luba objects associated with divination are connected to the moon, with the rising moon being an apt metaphor for a heightened state of awareness and clairvoyance that occurs during spirit possession. Such receptacles of Luba bowl figures often contain traces of white mpemba pigment, which is applied to the faces of spirit mediums as surrogate moonlight. Spirit mediums keep the bowls close during consultation with the divine.

Moon mask
Baule peoples, Côte d'Ivoire
Mid- to late 19th century
Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Brian Leyden

Dancing the moon. Carved by the Baule of Côte d'Ivoire, moon masks are rare. They are distinguished by delicately carved human features and by the mask's rounded shape encircled with an ornamental openwork or solid zigzag motif, which together evoke the form and radiating light of the full moon. Moon masks perform at entertainment dances and festivals before the appearance of more important masks.

Helmet mask
Tetela or Songye peoples, Kasongo, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Early 20th century
Wood, kaolin, pigment, raffia
National Museum of African Art, acquisition grant from the James Smithson Society, 84-6-6.1

Danced at new moon. Domains of sky and earth, nature and culture, are conceptualized in this mask, which was used for the dance of the new moon, funerals, and other occasions. John Noble White, who was with the Methodist Mission at Minga in Shaba province, collected it in 1924. His field photography of the masquerade in performance shows that vulture and guinea fowl feathers originally protruded from the crest. The costume included a fiber ruff (still attached to the mask), a fiber skirt, and a leopard skin. These elements of the wilderness might refer to local emblems of power.

El Anatsui
b. 1944, Ghana
Earth-Moon Connexions
Wood, paint
National Museum of African Art, purchased with funds provided by the Smithsonian Acquistion Program, 96-17-1

Plotting space and time. Shimmering dots, lines, and concentrated areas of color suggest the movement and phases of the moon over the landscape and its connection to the seasonal calendars that regulate agricultural labor and the timing of rituals and other activities. The work evokes astronomy's grid-like plotting that fixes stars, moons, and planets within particular galaxies in deep space. El Anatsui explored another lunar theme in Sacred Moon, a 2007 wall sculpture that is part of his ongoing explorations with repurposed metals.