Hemba Figure from a Divination Oracle

SKU PF.5715
Circa

19th Century AD to 20th Century AD

Dimensions

5.875″ (14.9cm) high x 2″ (5.1cm) wide

Medium

Wood

Origin

Democratic Republic of Congo

Gallery Location

UK


 

This charming and well-patinated figure was made by the Hemba of what was once Zaire. It is an unusually compact and beautifully-finished piece, with evidence of extensive handling. It depicts a ¾ length figure in what would perhaps have been a kneeling position although the lower section is a plain pedestal base. It is a male figure, with a chin-strap beard around a very pointed chin. The apex of the head is decorated with a plain pointed cap, framing a face with narrow coffee-bean eyes, a retrousse nose and a small, pursed mouth. The torso is elongated, with a protuberant stomach and a marked umbilicus. The arms are very long and narrow, thinning to paddle-like hands that blend with what would be the legs were the figure not turned into a pedestal base at this point. What is most puzzling about this piece, however, is its purpose. It is too small to be an ancestor figure (see below), and it is instead most likely to be the figural part of a divination gourd. These items are used to foretell the future, with a figure such as this attached into the centre, surrounded by other items that were rattled around and then “cast” in order to prognosticate. This may explain the highly polished patina on the current piece.
The Hemba are an agriculturally-based group living on the banks of the Lualaba River, in what was once Zaire. They are arranged into large groups which approximate to clan, each of which has a common ancestor, and is headed by an elder known as the Fuma Mwalo. He is responsible for justice, receives tribute from his subordinates; his power is counterbalanced by secret societies called Bukazanzi (for men) and Bukibilo (for women).

The Hemba were long believed to be contiguous with the Luba, and only achieved sociocultural independence in the eyes of western African art history in the 1970s. The Luba and the Hemba are socioculturally and artistically similar in many respects. However, artistic production can be differentiated in terms of the delicacy (enthusiasts would describe it as “refinement”) of the carving. They are known for their decoration of secular and utilitarian objects, notably caryatid stools, headrests and instruments; masks are highly distinctive – either monkey masks, or perfectly symmetrical plain masks with slit eyes that are reminiscent of Lega pieces – although their social role is currently unclear (see above). In general terms, figure features tend to be sharper, with more peripheral detailing (such as hair and beards) and a subtle geometric quality. One of the very few indigenous artists known specifically to western art historians was a member of the Hemba group; the “Master of Buli” is known for his unique rendering of human features in an elongated, somewhat simian manner. Hemba figures – singiti – usually represent male ancestors, naked figures standing on circular bases, with elongated torsos, hands resting on the stomach (usually protuberant, perhaps representing wealth or prosperity), beards, and coiffure drawn back and formed into the shape of a cross. Warrior figures (carrying weapons) confer power, and are usually kept by the Fuma Mwalo; they usually have an encrusted patina as the blood of animals (usually chickens) is poured over them during ceremonies to recall the glories of their lives. The Fuma Mwalo also keeps small Janus figures known as kabejas, which are made magical by the addition of substances to small depressions in their heads; their role is to protect the village, and also receive libations to ensure they do so adequately. Small figures are also carved as part of divination objects – especially gourds – used for prognostication.

This is a rare and fascinating piece of African art, and would be a striking addition to any collection.

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