This striking ivory sculpture is a maternity figure, made by the Pende of Gabon and Zaire. It is a rare piece, as the Pende do not make many such objects. It portrays an intriguingly-proportioned woman with short, powerful legs seated upon a low stool. She has a very long torso, a squared head and long arms that support a child upon her back. Her head is topped with an incision-decorated (raffia?) hat, surmounted with an animal figure, perhaps a dog. Detailing is excellent, with small, pert breasts, incised dot decoration across the chest, arms/wrists and abdomen, and a serene face with downturned eyes, a triangular nose and a narrow mouth; the cheeks and forehead are decorated with further lines of incised dots. The child looks to his/her left, wearing a smaller dome-shaped hat and lines of facial scarifications. The figure is unpainted, with a fabulous glossy patina.
The Pende live in the Loango and Kasai River area in what was once Zaire. They have a complex history of interaction with the Lunda Empire and the Tchokwe, and are affiliated with the Yaka and Suku, with which they share a common origin (Angola). They are governed by a loose network of localised chiefs (Djigo) and what essentially amounts to a landed aristocracy. Social structures – and thus most of their artworks – are centred on age groups which are circumcised and enter adulthood together, with what essentially amounts to a gerontocracy through the society. The spiritual welfare of Pende communities is controlled by family heads (usually the eldest maternal uncle of a family – the society is matrilineal) and village diviners. Ancestor spirits (mvumbi) are either good or bad, determined by the manner in which the ancestor died, and can harm the family unless appeased and cared for. Spirits may demand that the holy man make a sculpture, to which offerings are made.
So far as artistic production is concerned, the Pende are divided into Eastern and Western groups, although these divisions are socially artificial and the Pende consider themselves to be a single people. A great deal of Pende art is basically regalia, including ivory mask pendants (Ikhoko), staffs, adzes, cups whistles and much else. There are fifteen mask forms in the Western group, all of which are somewhat similar in possessing downcast eyes, protruding teeth and a triangular nose. The Eastern group possess only about four variants. Pende figures are rare, and represent ancestors; some female sculptures have also been recovered, and are believed to be maternity figures. These appear to first have been carved at the start of the 20th century. Ivory versions of tehse figures are very rare indeed, and it is the first such we have seen. It would have been made for a very important member of Pende society.
This piece is rare and desirable. It is well carved, well patinated and a good addition to any collection of African art.
- (PF.5399 (LSO))