HEMBA ANCESTOR FIGURE, NIEMBO DE LA LUIKA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO
Wood with a deep, shiny, black-brown patina
H. 61 cm - L. 19 cm
Provenance: - Pierre Dartevelle, Brussels
- Jean-Claude Bellier, Paris
- Private collection
- The Inner Eye: Vision and Transcendence in African Arts, LACMA, 26 February-9 July 2017
- Heroic Africans: Legendary Leaders, Iconic Sculptures, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 19 September 2011-29 January 2012
- Heroic Africans: Legendary Leaders, Iconic Sculptures, Rietberg Museum, Zurich, 26 February-3 June 2012
- Alisa LaGamma, Helden Afrikas: Ein neuer Blick auf die Kunst, Zurich, Rietberg Musuem, 2012, pp. 260-261, fig. 222
- Alisa LaGamma, Heroic Africans: Legendary Leaders, Iconic Sculptures, New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011, pp. 260-261, fig 222
Effigies of renowned ancestors have made the Hemba sculptors famous. They are rare and express in their own way the spirit of the great princely families who left the forest areas to settle in the vast plains of the eastern part of Congo, Maniema and northern Katanga. Some of the workshops in the southern Niembo reached a level of perfection and balance that is unparalleled. The sculpture presented here is among the major works of these workshops.
Workshop and style
The effigy, in a standing posture, is carved from a medium-heavy wood, probably Chlorophora excelsa, and measures 61 cm by 19 cm wide. It is covered with a dark, lustrous, old patina. The ovoid face, with its full and rounded forms, highlights a smooth forehead that extends to the top of the skull. This practice is a sign of wisdom and authority. The eye sockets are cut into an almond-shaped space, the eyes half-closed, slightly slanted, with the upper eyelid more prominent. The expression underlines, in what has been called the great art of sleep, the vigilance of the ancestor whose gaze, open to another world, remains attentive to his own. The nasal bridge is thin, curved like an eagle's beak. Under the nasal filter, the mouth appears closed, with modelled, slightly fleshy lips. The chin is rounded. The auricle is circular and marked with a central pastille.
The four-lobed headdress is tilted backwards in a fashion characteristic of the Luika workshops. It is tied in two double braids in a semi-circle passing under two horizontal braids1. These rest on the back lobe of the headdress. According to tradition, the heroes of these princely families used to keep the seeds to be planted during the short migrations of the dry season. This hairstyle is widely spread throughout the region in infinite varieties of shapes and positions.
Under a cylindrical neck with a protruding Adam's apple, the shoulders are gently flared and begin the volume of the left-slit thorax. This is cut out of the bulbous belly, tightened under the arms. The arms spread out harmoniously to wrap around the sides of the umbilical zone, reminding us how much this hero of the clan watches over his family like a mother over the child she is expecting. Vertical scarification marks in the form of spikes adorn the abdomen, a sign of the ancestral effigies of the Luika workshops. The back is smooth and sinuous, the spine hollowed out, the shoulder blades shaped. The buttocks are cut out in a circle. The lower limbs, whose lower part is destroyed, are firm and rounded around a valiant and circumcised sex. The isometric rhythms accentuate the stable character of this peaceful and serene posture. This eurhythmics is particularly noticeable in the expression of the volume of the trunk, narrowing at the level of the arms, amplifying at the level of the belly, giving the whole the curvilinear movement of a Greek amphora.
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This masterful sculpture is related to a workshop of the Luika, from which several works are similar. Among these, we note the effigy of the Institut des Musées Nationaux du Congo (IMNC) collected in the Mbulula area2 ; that of the Art Institute of Chicago, collected in the vicinity of Kongolo; that of the Museum of Zurich acquired in 1940 from the Hans Coray collection, originating from the northern Niembo area and that of Vranken-Hoet, Brussels. In this group, the ancestral figure studied is exceptional and probably dates from the turn of the 20th century.
Cult and function
The ancestor's effigy, the prerogative of the great families of ancestors, is in their own way part of a cult that is paid to the founding heroes and illustrious figures who have marked the history of their clan, from the Fang in the north-west of Gabon to the Boyo, the Tumbwe and the Bembe in the east of the DRC.
Its function is to keep the memory of them and correlate it to the history of the country.