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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Masterpieces of African Art : Hemba Sculpture of a Woman
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Hemba Sculpture of a Woman - PF.5737 (LSO)
Origin: Democratic Republic of Congo
Circa: 20 th Century AD
Dimensions: 16" (40.6cm) high x 5.25" (13.3cm) wide
Collection: African
Medium: Wood and Textile


Location: United States
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Description
This striking sculpture of a heavily scarified standing female is an ancestor figure from the Hemba group of what was once Zaire, although the addition of a piece of textile makes it possible that it is a magical item. Female figures are markedly less common than male versions, as most figures represent the male founders of tribal clans (see below). She is traditionally rendered, with a long torso, short legs and long arms with the hands resting on the abdomen. The breasts are small, above a double triangle scarification pattern. The head is oversize and serene, with a long nose, arched brows, closed eyes and a pursed mouth. The patina is dark, the cloth worn, indicating considerable age.

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. In general terms, figure features tend to be sharper, with more peripheral detailing (such as hair and beards) and a subtle geometric quality. 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 animals (usually chickens) are sacrificed to 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.

- (PF.5737 (LSO))

 

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