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HOME : African & Tribal Art : African Collection/ HK : Nyamwezi Ancestor Figure
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Nyamwezi Ancestor Figure - LSO.235
Origin: Tanzania
Circa: 20 th Century AD
Dimensions: 24.5" (62.2cm) high x 3.5" (8.9cm) wide
Collection: African
Style: Nyamwezi
Medium: Wood

Additional Information: Hong Kong

Location: Great Britain
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This striking and powerfully-carved figure represents an ancestor, and was made by the artist-craftsmen of the Nyamwezi group. This population, from Central- to North-West Tanzania, number about 500,000 and are largely agrarian farmers with cultural links to the Sukuma, the Sumbwa, the Kimbu, the Konongo and the Kerebe/Kerewe. Their name is of Swahili origin, and literally means “Men of the West” (or “Men of the Moon”), a moniker they earned in the 19th century from the caravans that used to pass through their territory; they used to call themselves the Wanyamwezi. Their society is highly variable owing to the large area in which they live, but the main themes are consistent: small chiefdoms presided over by paramount chiefs responsible for material wealth, assisted by a sorcerer who takes care of the populace’s spiritual health. Status is inherited, or gained by being a good tracker – especially of elephants.

While they are an aesthetically-inclined people, they do not usually have specifically-appointed artists; such occupations were viewed as additional skills, rather than as socially-valid vocations. However, skilled carvers may well be pressed into providing secular items – notably anthropomorphic thrones and stools – as well as paraphernalia for water divining (elongated stick-figures) traditional religious practices. While they have a detailed pantheon of deities and spirits (including Likube [High God], Limi [the Sun] and Liwelolo [the Universe]) ancestor worship is a more common affair. This takes the form of offerings of animals to one’s predecessors, having first invoked the help of Likube. Witchcraft and possession cults also exist, but are more secretive affairs.

The canons of Nyamwezi art are varied but follow certain tendencies. Most figures are comparatively tall, and made from heavy dark wood that gains a polished appearance from libations or continued handling. They are almost invariably standing, with long torsos, disproportionately short (flexed) legs and slender/nugatory arms. Heads are usually rounded, contrasting with an often angular body. The eyes are usually inlaid with beads, and some figures also have hair and inlaid teeth (a characteristic of Sukuma sculptures and masks). Their sometimes simplistic construction is offset by an ebullience and dynamism that makes the Nyamwezi one of East Africa’s most notable sculpting groups.

The current piece displays a host of familiar and innovative characteristics. It depicts a standing male figure with flexed legs. The proportions are conventionally Nyamwezi, with a long body, comparatively short legs, delicate arms and a disproportionately large rounded/square head. The upper torso has received unusual treatment, comprising a large, angular block to represent the chest and shoulder complex, thus dwarfing the arms that are wrapped around the chest and down to the navel area. The stomach area is the most protuberant, dropping away to a pinched waist that swells over the hips and the schematic genitalia. The legs are slightly splayed, bent at the knee, and end in large, well-modelled feet. The face is dominated by a long, slender, triangular nose springing from strong brows over rounded eyes with slit pupils. The mouth is simplified and thin, with a strong chin. Most unusually, the head is surmounted by a large, thick anteroposterior crest that has been truncated posteriorly. Also unusual is the lack of inlaid beads or teeth on the face, although this does provide a solemn and austere expression. The ears are triangular with the apex towards the rear, and the whole head is supported by an inverted conical neck. Surface texture is patinated and irregular, implying extensive handling, use, and considerable age. The legs and the underside of the posterior are highly polished through handling, while the upper reaches of the torso are less handled and with tool marks still clearly visible. The abdomen and the head seem to have attracted libations, while the headcrest is polished superiorly. The arms and the back of the head were damaged or remodelled shortly after the piece was made, for while they are rough, the exposed inner wood had developed some patina. This is a well- conceived, well-executed and well-used figure, and an outstanding addition to any serious collection of African art. - (LSO.235)


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