We ran a social media series highlighting ways in which girls, and more broadly, women, show up in or influence rock art as we celebrated the International Day of the Girl late last year. As we mark the International Women’s Day today we share 3 links we found between women and rock art.

women and rock art
Girls are authors of rock art
In ancient Cahuilla North American rock art, girls undergoing initiation into womanhood painted spirit helpers they had seen in visions in visible sites in their communities at the end of their initiation rites. This is similar to a tradition in Malawi. In the Dedza-Chongoni area of Malawi, a secret initiation rite known as the chinamwali marks girls’ entry into womanhood. While the girls learn stories, songs, and expected behaviour and roles from older women, they paint on the rocks as a mnemonic device.

women and rock art
Girls and women are depicted in prehistoric art
This frieze is from a shelter in Namibia’s Brandberg. It shows a row of young girls possibly walking to their initiation and with a guide at their helm. A San painting, it is finely detailed: the girls wear what might be beads across their heads and some form of headdress. Fascinatingly, a barely there figure is painted behind the girls perhaps indicating a spirit helper or guide. Around the girls, animals known to be revered by the San and considered reservoirs of potency, such as the giraffe and antelopes that might be kudu or springbok, are painted as well.

This is only one of more representations of women in African rock art. In other paintings, women are shown tending to herds of cattle, in various domestic scenes, or participating in healing dances.

Girls and women discover rock art
In 1879, Maria Sanz de Sautuola accompanied her father, an amateur archaeologist, to a cave on their property that he had been investigating. While her father worked, Maria wandered off deeper into the cave. Happening to glance upward, she screamed out to her father to come see the amazing oxen-like creatures that were painted on the cave’s ceiling. She had just discovered the cave paintings of Altamira, Spain.

Closer home, the only currently-active woman Somali archaeologist, Dr. Sada Mire, blazes a similar trail. She moved to Sweden as a teenager when civil war started in Somalia. It was in exile that a passion for discovering her own history developed and she decided to study archaeology. In particular, the sentence, “In order to write African history, we need to do archaeological research” found in a book inspired her ambition. She has discovered numerous prehistoric painting sites including the only one known to depict sheep (Dhambalin) in Somaliland.  

“This rock art has a teaching. It shows how people lived some time back, in caves, and they painted to let us know they lived here and what was there.” 12 year old Esther about the Kakapel paintings

In our outreach work we seek to reach students and share with them the great heritage that is rock art. Our travelling exhibition ‘Dawn of Imagination’, for example, incorporated student engagement in the form of essay competitions, and rock art knowledge games. Below are some excerpts. Just like Mary Leakey was inspired by cave paintings she visited at a young age to pursue a lifelong career in archaeology, and human history, we’re hoping prehistoric art will inspire generations of young women, and men, to be interested in their rich past.


rock art meets fashion

Late last year, TARA was invited to take part in a fashion event, ‘Where Art Meets Fashion’ where three fashion designers, Deepa Dosaja, Harriet Patrizi and Tim Redo would be showcasing their work. But one might ask what does rock art have to do with a fashion show? There are rock art images in which human figures are dressed or decorated (fashionably) but our participation in the fashion event began as an opportunity to reach out to new audiences and raise awareness of rock art and of our conservation work, but it turned out to be much more: it provided an opportunity to consider rock art in a different light.

rock art meets fashion

Artwork by Mwini


As the event started to take shape, the three designers and a contemporary visual artist, Mwini, came to our offices in Karen to learn about rock art and TARA’s work. A lot of our conservation and archiving efforts have been aimed at enabling archaeologists access research material. But through engaging with these artists, we began to consider the value of rock art as part of art history more. After all rock art is the first form of visual art. This shift in thinking also allows us to make rock art relevant to people today in a different way. Rock art served as an inspiration for the artists who interpreted it in their own pieces at the event: a new form of engagement with rock art. Mwini’s work for example, re-interpreted engravings and paintings in classical motifs found around the continent.

rock art meets fashion

Artwork by Mwini

At the event, TARA’s founder, David Coulson gave a speech, and during the whole event rock art images from around the continent were projected. We also had a stand with leaflets on our upcoming safaris and we held a silent auction. All in all, the event was successful; we were encouraged to see the positive reactions of people towards our work.

Cultural Mediation with Rock Art: 5 Questions with Hamidou Moussa

The organisation Culture Por Tous (Culture for all) describes cultural mediation as the deployment of intervention strategies – activities and projects – that aim to introduce publics to a variety of experiences in the context of art and heritage institutions, municipal services, or community groups. Hamidou Moussa, TARA intern and culture student and practitioner from Niger, explained it to me as creating an opportunity for the meeting of art(works) with the public.

On an afternoon in August, Moussa led one such cultural mediation with a French class at the Alliance Française in downtown Nairobi. He introduced African rock art, showing various examples, and spoke about TARA’s work documenting and conserving it. He then launched into a consideration of the values that one might derive from a consideration of rock art.

Cultural Mediation with Rock Art: 5 Questions with Hamidou Moussa

I sat down with him afterward to find out more about the médiation culturelle and his thoughts on rock art.

Wangũi: Tell me about your background and how it relates to rock art.

Moussa: I used to be a teacher in primary school in Niger, then I stopped teaching to go study literature at the university. As I finished with literature the university started an arts and culture programme, and I decided to study that as well. In my literature studies we studied history and heritage.

When you talk about heritage, when you talk about art, rock art is an important part of all of that. My physical meeting with rock art however, happened because I needed to do an internship for my arts and culture degree.

W: You led a cultural mediation at Alliance using different examples of rock art. Tell me what cultural mediation is.

M: It’s a concept and practice born in France and used in France and Canada. It means to create a meeting between the public and a work of art. You have a determined public – students, workers, members of parliament, soldiers, etc. – you choose your public. Then you choose your type of art – music, dance, painting, and so on. Then you create a meeting between the public and the work of art.

In the meeting you provoke a reflection on universal values like freedom, tolerance, duties, rights, respect, the relationship between humans and nature and so on. The public will then react to the work of art and/or to the values you bring up. There may be a discussion, and you may give them a task to perform, or even ask them to create works of art of their own in response. A cultural mediation can have various objectives, all linked with an engagement with art.

W: The mediation was in French, could you give me a brief summary of what you covered?

M: We started off by discovering TARA with the public. And then we discovered rock art: what is it, where is it, why rock art, etc.

After that we focused on the Dabous giraffes as the case study to look deeper into the importance and meanings of rock art for prehistoric peoples and for us now: spirituality, knowledge, economic meanings and so on.

Then we worked in groups to reflect on the relationship between humans and nature. We rounded it off by looking at where rock art fits into all of this.

“When I discovered rock art, I learnt that we have to learn again.”

W: What values do you think rock art evokes? What values does rock art evoke for you?

M: Rock art can mean liberty, freedom.

Take for an example the Dabous giraffes- you can think about the size and type of the art, it’s being an engraving, the quality of the engraving.

Everybody should ask themselves, how much time did the artists take to make it? So they must have had free time in order to make it.

Then it is in the desert. Somewhere outside, not in a house- therefore nothing to hide the artists. Therefore it is an indication of freedom.

We in Niger, to whom the rock art belongs now, we should also be free to protect it from vandalism, from mining companies and such like.

Rock art can mean beauty, it can also mean development. When you have rock art you have something to give to the world since it attracts tourists.

It can mean meeting points between different people in society, people from different cultures hence tolerance. I came to TARA in Kenya because of rock art. People who visit rock art come from different places.

W: You will be going back to finish your Masters in Niger now. What wisdoms do you take with you, and how will rock art be evident in your future work?

M: In my course at the university we studied the history of culture from Ancient Greece to now. We studied architecture, painting… and it was a lot of knowledge.

When I discovered rock art, I learnt that we have to learn again. Of everything we learnt in art history, there was nothing more beautiful or more interesting than rock art. I think I will focus my research on rock art now when I go back.

From TARA I learnt new methods of work. I had a chance to practise English for work. I also learnt a new way of working because at TARA people really work, and I take this work culture with me.

From Kenya I learnt to be nice to people. Kenyans are nice and always ready to help foreigners.

(Interview has been edited for clarity)

by Wangũi Kamonji