An icon of Hemba sculpture
This noble, powerful, serene statuette with a strong personality tells the story of its African ancestors.
Democratic Republic of the Congo, Hemba ancestor figure, Niembo of the Luika, shiny and deep brown-black patina, 61×19 cm.
The Hemba civilisation originated in Central Africa, in the southeast of what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Its location in the fertile Luika River valley fostered the development of a structured society, in which an art form closely linked to the prestige of large families flourished, the oldest of these families going back as many as 15 generations. This statuette bears witness to this art form, depicting an ancestor whose aura is reflected in a perfectly recognisable aesthetic. The softness of the sculpted face, with its introspective expression, contrasts with the body’s clear, sober volumes and square shoulders. Its waist, arms and hips are strongly delineated. This ancestor looks like a quiet, intangible force endowed with wisdom, as his high forehead shows. The pose itself is significant. Placed flat on either side of a bulging, disproportionately sized belly, the symbol of life, his hands emphasise the womb that unites the ancestor to his clan, which he watches over maternally. He keeps one half-closed eye on the past, the other on the future. Thanks to him, the Hemba can sleep in peace. For his memory to be celebrated in this way, the now-nameless ancestor must have been very important during his lifetime. His hairstyle evokes his primordial role as a nurturing guide: arranged in a characteristic cruciform pattern, the braids contain a space to keep and transport the clan’s treasure–seeds intended for planting in new lands during seasonal migrations. As the guardian of his group’s survival, he deserves to be dutifully honoured as expected through his effigy, which would have been kept in a funerary niche or the dwelling of a clan chief, who relied on this tangible proof of his noble lineage to legitimise his family’s rank and its presence in a given area. The vertical corn ear scarification of the abdomen and the type of hairstyle, one of the many variations found in the various Hemba chiefdoms, allows this statuette to be attributed to the Niembo group, which has crossed the centuries with it.