Hating on Yombe

I  have a disturbing love/hate thing going on with Yombe maternity figures, and to a lesser extent Songye fetish figures.  This probably started in 2010 when I photographed a “phemba” at the Brooklyn Museum, and in a flash I was hooked.

Yombe Maternity Figure : Brooklyn Museum, NY

Tribal African Art doesn’t get more beautiful than these pieces, and collecting really has it’s own rewards. I guess at first glance it might be hard to relate to the filed teeth and all, but there is a deep spirituality associated with the concepts of birth and death that is uniquely handled by the Yombe!

Yombe maternity groups, called phemba, were used in association with women’s cults. While little is known about the meaning of different phemba iconographies, two main variants can be identified: a cross-legged woman with a “lifeless” infant on her lap and a cross-legged, kneeling or crouching woman with a living infant.[1]

Yombe Maternity Figure: Sotheby's 05/11

The phemba shown above was in the collection of Robert Rubin (acquired in 1984), and sold at a Sotheby’s auction (05/11), in NY for $US1.87 mil.

The frustration of trying to find one (read as cheap), pretty much covers the “hate” side of the equation. Maybe it was the Red Bull, followed by a cappuccino mix, but at auction time week ending 11/11/11, I was pretty much as primed to shed some cheese as Imelda Marcos in a Louboutin sale. The phemba which I could not afford, but which I purchased anyway is shown below.

Yombe Maternity Figure

One of the fascinating aspects of the sculpture is the facial expression, and the impression of restraint, and strength, shown alongside the gentle cradling of the infant’s head. These figures possibly are connected with mpemba, a women’s cult said to have been founded by a famous midwife (circa 1770), and concerned with fertility and the treatment of infertility. They are popular among the Kongo peoples of western DRC (formerly  Zaire), especially among the Yombe.

The figure shown, illustrates a person of high rank in society, as testified by her cross-legged pose on a pedestal and her many body adornments. The chiseled teeth, the corded-firm breasts, the close fitting “mpu” hat, and especially the raised scarification marks indicate ideals of beauty and perfection. The double bracelets around her upper arms imitate protective charms called “nsunga”; made of plaited or braided raffia fibers, they are worn by religious experts and by ill people as a cure.[2]

Yombe Scarification/Cicatrisation

Meant to stimulate sexual pleasure, the scars were considered both beautiful and erotic, but they show the strength, nature, and character of the women as well.

During their ritual use, the surfaces of the figures were rubbed with a reddish mixture of oil and camwood powder, both a cosmetic and a sign of mediation. In Yombe thought the color red indicates transitional conditions such as death and birth. The fact that some mother-and-child figures hold or carry what appears to be a dead baby alludes to the close interrelationship in Kongo beliefs between the spirit world and the world of the living.[3]

Another perspective is as follows,

Mother and child figure represents the female ancestor taking care of her descendants.This commemorative figure would have been used to honor the maternal spirit who brings prosperity and fertility. Among the Kongo people, the woman is considered as the chief of the family. Thus, the female ancestor is the guarantor of the fecundity and continuity of the clan or family. Such sculptures would be kept on a family or local shrine where she would be receive sacrifices and offerings.[4]

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