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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Hemba, Luba, Shankadi : Hemba Wooden Janiform Kabeja Sculpture
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Hemba Wooden Janiform Kabeja Sculpture - PF.5340 (LSO)
Origin: Southeastern Congo
Circa: 20 th Century AD
Dimensions: 9.375" (23.8cm) high x 3.75" (9.5cm) wide
Collection: African
Medium: Wood

Location: UAE
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This imposing Janus (or Janiform) sculpture is a Kabeja figure made by the Hemba of what was once Zaire. It is executed in the rough likeness of a pair of male and female Siamese twins, conjoined from the buttocks to the apex of the head, and with two separate sets of legs. The bodies are characteristically block-like, with hard angles on the trunk (especially at the joint between the thorax and the columnar neck) and the arms. The torso is a great deal longer than the legs, which are flexed and leant backwards as if the figures were supporting each other’s weight. Their abdomens are protuberant – the female’s no more so than the male, thus precluding pregnancy. Her breasts are very prominent; their hands are symmetrically placed on the hips, with the fingers detailed as incisions. Their genitalia are both clearly marked. The neck is shared between the figures and is outsized, almost dwarfing the comparatively small heads that project from each side, joined at the back. They share a peaked, hatched coiffure; the male also has a hatched strap denoting a beard. The faces are basically the same, in possessing coffee-bean eyes, slim noses and full lips. However, the female has higher cheekbones and is rather smaller than the male. It has a glossy patina that implies 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 – 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. Small figures are carved as part of divination objects – especially gourds – used for prognostication. 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 a striking and fascinating piece of African art, and would be a striking addition to any collection.

- (PF.5340 (LSO))


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