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Hemba Ivory Kneeling Female Figure - DA.453
Origin: Democratic Republic of Congo
Circa: 1800 AD to 1900 AD
Dimensions: 3.75" (9.5cm) high
Collection: African Art
Style: Hemba
Medium: Ivory
Condition: Fine

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In southeast DRC, the 90,000 Hemba people inhabit the right bank of the Lualaba River. This region presents vast plains surrounded by high hills and bordered by streams, rocks, and marshes. They are primarily subsistence agriculturalists whose main staples include manioc, maize, peanuts, beans and yams. These crops are supplemented by small scale hunting and fishing done mostly by the men. Some alluvial copper is panned from the river and sold to outside markets. Their social organization is founded on a system of clans that brings together several families sharing a common ancestor. They recognize a creator god Vidiye Mukulu and a supreme being ShimuGabo. The Hemba practice ancestor worship, not only to keep the memory of their great chiefs alive, but also to justify the present authority and power of the chief of the clan; the latter has absolute authority over clan members and is in charge of several ancestor figures he keeps in his own hut or in a smaller, funerary hut. The chief of the clan renders justice and his status as clan head means that he has the privilege of receiving numerous gifts. As celebrant of the ancestral cult, the chief of the clan, surrounded by the people, communicates with the ancestor, recalling his great deeds and summoning his good will. He renders justice in his own home, and collects tributes for it. Along with medicine, law, and sacrifices, the ancestral cult penetrates all social, political, and religious domains. To possess numerous effigies is a sign of nobility. Secret societies such as Bukazanzi for the men and Bukibilo for the women counterbalance the chief of the clan’s power. Diviners play an important role in society, often requiring that certain ancestors be appeased in order to establish balance in the community. The Hemba are a matrilineal people with a sculptural tradition devoted mainly to representation of male ancestors. The sculptures of the Hemba include singiti male ancestor figures and two types of masks. Although every figure is the portrait of a specific person, the artist portrays generalized , not particular, individual traits. The figures express equilibrium, symmetry and refinement. The sculptural beauty reveals the highest moral qualities. The Hemba see the serenely closed eyes and the rounded face as reflecting the ancestor’s interior calm. A four-lobed hairdo typical for many Hemba figures, evokes the four directions of the universe and the crossroad where spirits assemble. Hands on each side of the swelling belly indicate the ancestor embracing and watching over descendants. They are called upon by the chief of the clan who is in charge of them, in a dialogue recalling the valiant deeds of the ancestor in return for his benevolence. The Hemba honor the kabeja, a Janus-shaped statuette, with a single body and two faces, male and female, on one neck. The kabeja is topped with a receptacle for magic ingredients. Each clan possesses a single kabeja, which is dangerous to handle, and which receives sacrifices intended for the spirits, a magico-religious practice that is of the essence to the family. The artistic style of the Hemba is very similar to that of the Luba, as many of their forms are borrowed. Art often results from the elaboration of otherwise simple utilitarian objects. Extensive wooden sculptures, which often represent the ancestors, predominate. History: Near the end of the 16th century, the Hemba began their migration from an area to the northeast, probably modern day Tanzania. In the 1800s under the direction of Niembo and his son, Myhiya, the Hemba moved into their current location along the Congo (Zaire) River. The Luba unsuccessfully tried to incorporate the Southern Hemba into their growing kingdom. The Luba did succeed, however, in greatly influencing the Hemba in numerous ways, including artistic styles. In the late 19th century, the Hemba were subjugated to raids by Arab slave traders and again by Belgian forces during colonization. Economy: The Hemba are primarily subsistence agriculturalists whose main staples include manioc, maize, peanuts, and yams. These crops are supplemented by small scale hunting and fishing done mostly by the men. Some alluvial copper is panned from the river and sold to outside markets. Political Systems: Generally, the Hemba acknowledge chiefs who are heads of extended landholding families as their political leaders. Genealogy is recognized both matrilinearly and patrilinearly, but land chiefs inherit their positions through their maternal line. Religion: The Hemba recognize a creator god (vidiye mukulu) and a supreme being (shimugabo). Worship is primarily carried out through sacrifices and offerings to ancestor shrines. Diviners play an important role in society, often requiring that certain ancestors be appeased in order to establish balance in the community. - (DA.453)

 

 

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