Hemba Wooden Sculpture of a Woman

SKU PF.4461
Circa

20th Century AD

Dimensions

21″ (53.3cm) high x 6.5″ (16.5cm) wide

Medium

Wood

Origin

Southeasten Congo

Gallery Location

USA


 

This powerful and well-used sculpture of a standing female is an ancestor figure from the Hemba group of what was once Zaire. Female figures are markedly less common than male versions, as most figures represent the male founders of tribal clans (see below). In most respects it is a traditional Hemba piece, carved with the reserve and refinement thus implied. Starting from a circular integral base, the legs are short and flexed at the knee and hip, running up to a protuberant posterior and a long torso. In rear view, she has splayed buttocks, angular shoulders, and a line running the full length of the centre of the back. She also has a broad cruciform decoration on the back of her backwards-extended coiffure. She is either well-nourished or pregnant, with a large stomach – her hands resting upon it – and pendulous, pointed breasts. The neck is columnar, with an oversize head. The face is serene and small-featured, with fine double-arched brows running into an elongated nose, flanked by oval eyes and a wide, thin-lipped mouth. The surface of the piece is glossy and burnished, implying a long history of handling and perhaps the application of libations.

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 – wither monkey masks, or perfectly symmetrical plain masks with slit eyes that are reminiscent of Lega pieces – although their social role is currently unclear. 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.

This is an attractive and refined piece of African art, and is a striking addition to any collection.

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