In order to help determine the emotional state of a child, art therapists often use what is called the House-Tree-Person test. The child is asked to draw a house, a tree and a person, and then asked questions about their drawing. The thinking behind this test is that everyone can easily draw a house, a tree and a person, since everyone encounters houses and trees and people every day. Even children. In fact, children will often draw houses or trees or people even without being asked to. They are common, and thus can be drawn almost without thinking, and because of this the way they are drawn can speak volumes about the person doing the drawing. Those being tested project their inner feelings onto what they draw, and the person evaluating them can pick up on those projections by analyzing the drawings, as well as by asking them questions about them.
These kind of tests have been criticized because they often assume a Eurocentric worldview, and are therefore not applicable outside of the West. I can definitely say that in the close to two years that I have been practicing art therapy with children in Niger, I have seen very few drawings of houses or trees, or even people. However, there is something that appears in the children’s drawings over and over again – the mortar and pestle.
In Niger the mortar and pestle is a staple of every home. Whether you are in the village or in the city, you will find a mortar and pestle in the kitchen, and you will find that it is used for everything. It is used to grind grains, millet, corn, etc. and It is also used to make the spicy sauce that goes along with every meal. Children of all ages know how to use it, and I am not talking about a counter-sized, hand-held mortar and pestle that you might find in a pharmacy. Here the mortars are usually about knee-high in length and the pestle are as long as your arm. To use them requires real physical strength, and to get into a good pounding rhythm you really need some muscles. It is harder than it looks!
It is so interesting to me that so many of the children choose to draw the mortar and pestle, without any prompting. Certainly some of them see the drawings others have done and copy them, but that does not account for all of the drawings. Perhaps the principles of the House-Tree-Person are not wrong, but it needs to be contextualized. It seems clear to me that the mortar and pestle is the go-to object for Nigerien children to draw when they first come, when they are feeling unsure of themselves and do not know what to draw. And it makes sense. They are drawing what they know, what is familiar to them, especially since the art therapy room is such an unfamiliar place (at least at first). They often branch out and draw other objects or designs after a few sessions, but the mortar and pestle serves as an ice-breaker.
I love the variety of color and design in these drawings. There are many examples, but here are a few of them: