This charming piece is a divination object from the Hemba group of what was once Zaire. These pieces are not as well understood as other Hemba pieces, which are concerned with ancestor cults, reiteration of rulers’ power and the decoration of secular objects. This refers to the magical domain. It constitutes a small calabash with a rattan base and threaded rim, containing a human figure that is visible from the mid-chest upwards. The carving is monolithic in its simplicity and lack of detail, yet also in its power of execution. The figure and the base have a glorious dark burnished and encrusted patina that implies a long period of usage in the art of divination.
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.
Divination objects such as this are mysterious to a certain extent, but are understood to have been used to foretell the future. The details are uncertain, and involve “reading” the distribution of objects put into the gourd, including magical substances that may have included the object on top of the figures’ head. This is an exceptional and unusual piece.