February 3–July 7, 2024

Agents of Power: Body Adornment in African Art exhibition ID

Body adornment amongst African peoples is rich and diverse, an essential aspect of cultural expression, identity, and heritage. Across the continent, different cultures use body art to communicate creativity and cultural identity through performance, sculpture, beadwork, and print form. Such elements collectively illustrate each group’s social status, spiritual support, military strength, and individual cultural aesthetic. Through a selection of works from the Mesa College World Art Collection and The San Diego Museum of Art, this exhibition examines Maasai, Chokwe, Zulu, and Xhosa art representing the body or meant to be worn on it as an agent of power.

Intricate beaded collars and female headpieces represent beauty, strength, and social status in the many distinct body art practices of the Maasai peoples. The Chokwe people, primarily located in central and southern Africa, are known for their exceptional wooden masks and sculptures adorned with elaborate scarification. These artworks often represent ancestors, spirits, and mythological figures. Feathers were an essential part of warrior regalia for the Zulu people, who create objects with intricate designs that are both functional and artistic. Warriors wore plumes on their heads, often made of crane or ostrich feathers and signifying their rank or achievements. Located in South Africa, the Xhosa people have a long history of beadwork. Xhosa beadwork characterized by vibrant colors and intricate patterns in necklaces, headdresses, and bracelets, often plays an important role in ceremonies and rituals. As a group, these works display some of the unique artistic traditions distinguishing each of these cultures and reflecting the social structures, beliefs, and history of their peoples.


The San Diego Museum of Art is grateful to Dr. Denise Rogers for her ongoing work with the SDMA African art collection and for curating this display.

The San Diego Mesa College World Art Collection is grateful to Rosa Dubost and the Bonita Museum and Cultural Center for the generous donation of many of the Maasai works on view in Agents of Power: Body Adornment in African Art.


Featured at top right: Chihongo mask. Chokwe peoples, Angola and Democratic Republic of the Congo, 20th century. Wood, fiber, white pigment. On loan from the San Diego Mesa College World Art Collection.