This intriguing piece was made by the Pare or one of their close neighbours, in Northern Tanzania. It is a truly remarkable piece, depicting a male (?) apparently suffering from a disfiguring disease. The legs are short and block-like, the torso bowed forwards and the spindly arms projecting anteriorly at an unnatural angle. There is a pointed eminence projecting from the thorax/abdomen, the angle of which implies that the piece is more twisted to its right than is immediately apparent. The face – set into a blocky and seemingly over-large head – would appear to be set in an expression of anguish, with slanted coffee-bean eyes and open mouth. Patination is dark and glossy, implying extensive usage and considerable age.
The group of tribal groups living on the Indian Ocean seaboard include many that are influenced by Dayak and Malagasy cultural history – as a result, many of their works resemble Indonesian pieces. They live in mountainous areas with high plains, but close enough to the sea to feel its influence. The most unusual of their works include clay and wooden figures wrapped in cloth and then heavily patinated so that they resemble mummies. The variability of works is still fairly poorly understood, so while the monolithic presence of this piece has led to its attribution to the Pare, the Chaga, Shamba, Mbugu and Zigua may also have carved it.
So far as we are aware, this is a unique piece. While recognising that stylistic conventions allow almost unlimited variability, it is our view that this piece is not a stylistic standard, and instead represents someone suffering from tuberculosis, hence the twisted spine, “pigeon” chest and collapsed thorax. Tribal representations of sufferers of this respiratory disease are unknown, to our knowledge. Indeed, any artworks reflecting medical conditions are vanishingly rare, as are works by the Pare.
This is a remarkable find and a superb addition to any sophisticated collection of African art.