Marguerite E. Heckscher

Dissertation Fellow, American Association of University Women, Ph.D. candidate, Department of Art History, UW-Madison

Dancing Bodies: Movement, Mimesis, and Medicine in Shambaa Ancestral Arts

In northeastern Tanzania, honoring ancestors through art and actions lies at the heart of medicine. Like other Bantu communities throughout sub-Saharan Africa, many Shambaa people continue to advance an ancient perspective whereby physical, social, and environmental wellness depends on sustained reciprocities between the material realm of people and an ephemeral one teeming with unseen forces. To facilitate exchanges between the realms, healers enlist visual and performing arts. Spirit intermediaries, for example, prompt them to decorate anthropomorphized medicine containers called nkhoba with ritually significant items and body adornments. In return, spirits relay the ancestors’ desires, and so disclose both diagnoses and cures. Infused with medicines and spirit forces, nkhoba are body-like entities whose forms, like humans’, are in continual flux. They procreate, comprising “families” that are passed down through generations, serving as vital manifestations of lineal descent. Despite their human-like qualities and close association with somatic processes, nkhoba bear little visual resemblance to people. Inspired by Henry J. Drewal’s inquiries into arts and the senses in Africa, this presentation seeks to understand why. It explores local conceptions of illness and health, and the historical relationship between dance and waist adornments often used to dress nkhoba, discerning a Shambaa sensorium that, unlike Euro-America’s, is not dominated by sight. It proposes that, in Shambaa ancestral arts, figurative imagery privileges movement over mimesis, embodying a local, deep-seated medical belief that to be human and to be healthy is to dance.


Marguerite E. Heckscher is a trained theater actress and art historian specializing in Africa’s visual and performing arts and material culture, particularly in northeastern Tanzania. Her research focuses on figurative imagery and object / body relations in traditional healing contexts among Shambaa communities in the West Usambara Mountains. Marguerite is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Art History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and an American Association of University of Women Dissertation Fellow. Currently, she is writing her dissertation, which is based on Fulbright-Hays-funded research in Tanzania and Germany.