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HOME : African & Tribal Art : African Stools : Hemba Wooden Caryatid Stool
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Hemba Wooden Caryatid Stool - PF.3255 (LSO)
Origin: Southeastern Congo
Circa: 20 th Century AD
Dimensions: 14" (35.6cm) high x 8" (20.3cm) wide
Collection: African
Medium: Wood and Gold

Location: United States
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This serene piece is a caryatid stool from what was once Zaire, made by a master carver of the Hemba tribe. It is a traditional piece, depicting a kneeling woman supporting the stool’s seat through her fingers and a post in the apex of her coiffure. The face is very composed, with lidded eyes, a prominent nose and a slightly downturned mouth, all rendered in rather low relief. The torso is short and squat, with elongated arms and especially fingers stretching up to support the seat. She is naked, with pert breasts and a hatched loins area. She has a prominent umbilicus and a triangular scarification on her upper abdomen. It is unpainted, but the surface of the wood has attained a glossy age and use patina, especially on the seat and the arms where the piece was carried about. Stools such as this were used to assert status in many African tribal groups; only elites, and especially chiefs, were allowed to use them. Very often they were not sat upon, but were just displayed as regalia. This explains the often spindly and somewhat insubstantial construction of earlier examples. The symbolism is apparent – early chiefs were gods, and were often literally supported by their subjects so that they never touched the ground.

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 clans, 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. 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 confer power, and are usually kept by the Fuma Mwalo; they usually have an encrusted patina as animals (usually chickens) are sacrificed to 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. It is perhaps the caryatid stools that have received the greatest attention, however.

This is a well-rendered and elegant piece of African secular art, and would be a striking addition to any collection or sophisticated domestic setting.

- (PF.3255 (LSO))


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