The figure of a mother and child is an icon of Kongo art. It is not a simple genre theme, but a statement of the spiritual power supporting society, the need for fertility and the promise of future generations. These figures possibly are connected with mpemba, a women's cult said to have been founded by a famous midwife and concerned with fertility and the treatment of infertility. Mpemba seems to have grown at the same time the slave trade intensified, from 1770 to 1850; an increased concern for children seems a logical development. There are also ties to the Lemba cult, which also arose during the slave trade period, whose members were the wealthy mercantile elite. Lemba was concerned with healing, trade and marriage relations, and it redistributed potentially disruptive wealth among kin and shrines. Inside a special box, members kept significant cult objects including a sack of red pigment, symbolizing the female element, called pfemba lemba. Red pigment originally was rubbed on these figures; only traces remain. Costly and distinctively modeled metal bracelets were a Lemba emblem and may be represented on the figure.
The figure is seated, legs crossed, atop a small base. This pose conveys the prestige of high political and social status, as do a number of other details. It is depicted wearing a close-fitting hat, traditionally made of knotted raffia or pineapple leaf fiber. This type of hat was worn by chiefs at the time of their investiture and by noblewomen who would give birth to future rulers. Brass tacks and imported glass beads adorn the figure as well. The imported glass inset in the eyes shares the same glittering aesthetic but also refers to the ability to see the invisible spiritual world.
Other attributes of the figure are associated with beauty, perfection and high rank. The chest cord serves to emphasize the breasts. Scarification was viewed as erotic and beautiful; it marked physical maturity and assured conception. The chiseled teeth also were considered beautiful.
Examining similar figures makes it possible to identify artists' hands or workshops. Six extant figures are in the style of the figure, all of which have been attributed by Ezio Bassani (1981) to a carver he designates the Master of the de Briey Maternity (Africa Museum, Tervuren, no. 24662). Stylistic differences exist among even these six, and further research on attribution and dating is needed.
A final note should be made concerning the child depicted, which looks more like a small adult rather than a real infant. Leo Bittremieux, priest and ethnographer, in a 1939 letter to the Africa Museum in Tervuren, wrote that "Phemba" denotes "the one who gives children-in-potentia." A pfemba child is a magically conceived nkisi child, a fragile emissary of the spirit world. Because the child is unexpressive and supine, it has been described as dead. Since a number of the infants either nurse at or touch their mother's breast, there are either two different subjects or death takes an unusual definition. On this figure, the child holds his penis erect while touching the mother's breast. The gesture could be a reference to fertility, metaphorically referring to the seeds of creation or to the belief that those who die will be reborn. So death, or the spirit world, may not be estranged from life in Kongo beliefs.
Female figure seated crosslegged on a square plinth with a small male child across her knees. The smaller figure has one hand on his penis, one on the woman's breast. Added decoration on the female figure includes brass tacks on the forehead, inlaid glass eyes, a blue glass bead necklace, geometric scarification on the chest and back and a representation of a knotted fiber cap of high status.
Belgian colonial official, before 1914
Private collection, Belgium
Jean-Pierre Jernander, Brussels
Alan Brandt, New York, 1983
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