This attractive carving of a woman breastfeeding a child was carved by an artist of the Kongo Kingdom. The quality of the carving is very high. The mother is sitting cross-legged on an undecorated pedestal base, her left leg over her right, and with her hands supporting the rump and back of the child. The torso is very upright, with very pointed breasts, strongly-formed shoulders, elongated arms with discrete fingers, comparatively short legs and a long neck. The head, as is typical, is slightly upwards-facing, suggesting that it was designed to be viewed from above. The face is broad and flat, with a square jaw, beautifully-rendered lips, high brows over semi-circular drilled eyes and a short, wide nose. The head is surmounted with a skullcap, decorated with parallel semicircular incised lines. There are some beautifully-executed detailing, including a furrow down the centre of the back, a strip of textile (?leather) around the torso, a beaded necklace and a string suspended from the back of the cap over the shoulders. The patination is superb, as is the use wear and slight (stable) cracking.
The Kongo (or Bakongo) people live in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola and the Congo. By the end of the 15th century the Kongo were living in a series of loosely-connected yet autonomous kingdoms, to include Kongo, Ngoyo, Vungu and Kakongo, followed by the increasingly powerful Bakongo kingdom, Loango, at the start of the 16th century. This coincided with the arrival of the first Portuguese explorers, with whom they had a reasonably peaceful relationship for some time. The kingdom absorbed European traditions and religion without bloodshed, and, more importantly, with much of their indigenous culture intact. While matters deteriorated subsequently, partly due to wars with other tribal groups (notably the Yaka), the Kongo tribes have survived relatively well as cultural entities and have seen a resurgence since their independence in 1960.
Indigenous Kongo society was based around the kingship model, with extensive arrays of civil servants and court officials not unlike that of the Nigerian Kingdom of Benin. Owing to the large size of the area in which they live, this group is often unable to communicate and has to rely upon French/Portuguese or creoles based upon them. Their religious beliefs have a far wider circulation, and are based around a reverence for the dead who are believed to be able to assist in the determination of future destinies. They are also believed to inhabit minkisi (singular nkisi), or charms, that can be appealed to for assistance in times of duress or uncertainty. The most notable pieces of Kongo sculpture are the Nkisi Nkondi figures – often referred to as nail fetishes – which carry a packet of magical materials known as a bilongo; the figures are insulted and “hurt” with explosions and nails so that they will carry out the wishes of their tormentor. Various other categories also exist, such as the ntadi limestone grave markers and maternity figures, of which this is an excellent example.
Maternity figures are not designed to be prayers incarnate, as they are with Asante Akua’ba dolls or similar; they are instead designed to portray what the Kongo people believe to be the ideal characteristics of womanhood – submission, deference, obedience and devotion – rather than just portray the beauty of maternity; in some cases the baby is actually absent. The presence of twins is unusual, but not unforeseen due to the high rate of twinning in the area covered the Bantu expansion (most notably focused upon the Yoruba area). In light of the fact that fecundity is a revered characteristic in Africa as much as anywhere else, this is likely to have been a cause of celebration. The quality of the carving makes it probable that the piece was made for, or commissioned/owned by a high-ranking member of Kongo society, in line with the evidently high status of the woman portrayed.
This is an interesting and charming piece of African art.
- (PF.3890 (LSO))