Male and female figures, fragments of slit gongs created during the 19th and early 20th centuries by artists of the Mbembe, are among the most powerful and enigmatic wood carvings from the Middle Cross River region in southeastern Nigeria. Large in scale and weathered, with surfaces resembling rugged landscapes, these sculptures seem to possess a primordial quality. The museum's fragment of a female figure holding a child is among the best-preserved examples.
The female figure has a solid torso and heavy limbs and assumes an upright, serene pose, all features that resemble other Mbembe sculptures. She supports the child comfortably on her bent knees, cradling the head with her left hand and protectively placing her right hand on its thighs. Although the features of the child can no longer be discerned, there are indications of an elaborate painted coiffure. The child's navel, a reference to a person's beginning, protrudes from the belly like that of the mother figure. A prominent herniated navel was considered a sign of beauty among peoples of the Cross River and the adjacent regions in Cameroon.
The elegant face, coiffure and adornment of the female figure are features no longer discernible in other less well preserved Mbembe sculptures. The delicate oval face has a narrow nose and thin, slightly pointed lips. Inset black seeds highlight the eyes and recall the practice of artists among other Cross River peoples to emphasize eyes with metal and other inlays. The Cross River peoples elaborated and perfected their bodies through scarification and painting in an intricate, now almost forgotten language of patterns and two-dimensional designs. In keeping with this aesthetic, scarification in the form of raised lines and dots embellishes the cheeks, temples, forehead and chin of the figure. Bearing traces of red and dark pigment, the hairdo with distinct curves on both sides of the head is reminiscent of the finely shaved coiffures of men and women in the region in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The woman must be of high rank, because her necklace has five leopard's teeth, an adornment reserved for leaders.
Sculptures such as this originally were finials on one or both ends of monumental slit gongs that ranged in size from 10 to 16 feet (2.5 to 4 meters). Carved from the same log as the slit gong, the sculptures have a horizontal wood grain, a rare occurrence in African sculpture depicting the human form. Usually the grain runs parallel to the axis of the body. This different configuration challenged the artist to anticipate and carefully integrate the radiating patterns of the core of the trunk into a sculpture's design and surface modeling.
Although slit gongs with figurative finials had a wide distribution, ranging from Igbo country to the Cameroon Grassfields, Mbembe slit gongs possessed a unique design. The figurative finials either faced outward, connected by their backs to the ends of the slit gong, or they were almost entirely separated from the body of the gong and freestanding, in some instances facing inward toward the body of the gong. While standing or seated male figures holding a severed head in one hand alluded to warfare, the female figures suggested prosperity, fecundity and the important role women assume in Cross River societies. In some instances, gongs had a male figure on one end and a female on the other, an image that depicts the important and complimentary roles of men and women in Mbembe society.
Slit gongs belonged to the village or to particular men's associations. They were placed out in the open, which explains their weathered surfaces, where their purpose was to call the community together in case of emergencies such as military attacks, conflagration, deaths or other important events.
Only a few complete slit gongs left southeastern Nigeria at the beginning of the 20th century. Two are now in the Museum für Völkerkunde in Berlin. One of these gongs, a well-preserved piece, is painted. This may have been a common practice and would serve to explain the traces of pigment on the museum's sculpture. During the Biafran War (1967-70), a period of destruction and upheaval in southeastern Nigeria, many figurative finials were removed from slit gongs and exported to Europe and the United States. Nevertheless, several complete gongs remain in the region and are now protected by Nigerian antiquities laws.
Seated figure with a child laid across the knees, proper left hand under the head and proper right on the thigh. The overall surface is heavily eroded and the feet of the larger figure are cut off. The large figure has a leopard claw necklace, facial markings and a topknot hairstyle. The eyes are inlaid with lead.
Lucien Van de Velde, Antwerp, before 1973
Emile M. Deletaille, Brussels, 1973
Walter Vanden Avenne, Oostrozobeke, Belgium, 1973
Emile M. Deletaille, Brussels, 1983 to 1985
Visionary: Viewpoints on Africa's Arts, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., November 4, 2017-ongoing
Warriors and Mothers: Epic Mbembe Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, December 1, 2014-September 16, 2015
La Maternité dans les arts premiers; Het Moederschap in de Primitieve Kunsten. Société génerale de banque, May 13-June 30, 1977
Arts d'Afrique Noire. 1977. Les Expositions. Arnouville, vol. 23, p. 20.
Cole, Herbert M. 2012. Invention and Tradition: The Art of Southeastern Nigeria. New York: Prestel, pp. 81, 197, no. 107.
Kreamer, Christine Mullen. 2003. " A Tribute to Roy Sieber: Part 2." African Arts 36 (2), pp. 26-27, no. 30.
National Museum of African Art. 1999. Selected Works from the Collection of the National Museum of African Art. Washington, D.C.: National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, pp. 90-91, no. 61.
Société génerale de banque. 1977. La Maternité dans les arts premiers; Het Moederschap in de Primitieve Kunsten. Société génerale de banque, pp. 15, 54, no. 35.