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HOME : African & Tribal Art : African Collection/ HK : Hemba Wooden Caryatid Stool
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Hemba Wooden Caryatid Stool - PF.4805 (LSO)
Origin: Southeastern Congo
Circa: 20 th Century AD
Dimensions: 17.5" (44.5cm) high x 11.375" (28.9cm) wide
Collection: African
Medium: Wood

Additional Information: Hong Kong

Location: Great Britain
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This elegant sculpture with a woman as a caryatid is a superb example of secular art by the Hemba group of what was once Zaire. It is a tall piece, with a small, round, integral base that supports a compact, powerfully-built kneeling woman. She, in turn, is supporting another larger disc of wood atop her head and with her extended fingers, to provide greater stability for the user of the stool. The woman is rendered in traditional Hemba style, with some Luba characteristics. Her head is elongated, with an ornate coiffure adorned with a cruciform eminence dorsally. Her face is serene, with closed eyes, a long nose and a small, pursed mouth. She has an unusually protuberant stomach and pointed breasts; she is naked except for a series of bangles on each wrist, and she is additionally adorned with patched of keloid scarification on either side of the abdomen. The upper aspects of the piece are highly patinated with age and usage. Stools such as this were used to assert status in many African tribal groups; only elites, and especially chiefs, were allowed to use them. Very often they were not sat upon, but were just displayed as regalia. This explains the often spindly and somewhat insubstantial construction of earlier examples. The symbolism is apparent – early chiefs were gods, and were often literally supported by their subjects so that they never touched the ground.

The Hemba are an agriculturally-based group living on the banks of the Lualaba River, in what was once Zaire. They are arranged into large groups which approximate to clans, each of which has a common ancestor, and is headed by an elder known as the Fuma Mwalo. He is responsible for justice, receives tribute from his subordinates; his power is counterbalanced by secret societies called Bukazanzi (for men) and Bukibilo (for women).

The Hemba were long believed to be contiguous with the Luba, and only achieved sociocultural independence in the eyes of western African art history in the 1970s. The Luba and the Hemba are socioculturally and artistically similar in many respects. However, artistic production can be differentiated in terms of the delicacy (enthusiasts would describe it as “refinement”) of the carving. They are known for their decoration of secular and utilitarian objects, notably caryatid stools, headrests and instruments; Masks are highly distinctive – wither monkey masks, or perfectly symmetrical plain masks with slit eyes that are reminiscent of Lega pieces – although their social role is currently unclear. In general terms, figure features tend to be sharper, with more peripheral detailing (such as hair and beards) and a subtle geometric quality. One of the very few indigenous artists known specifically to western art historians was a member of the Hemba group; the “Master of Buli” is known for his unique rendering of human features in an elongated, somewhat simian manner. Hemba figures – singiti – usually represent male ancestors, naked figures standing on circular bases, with elongated torsos, hands resting on the stomach (usually protuberant, perhaps representing wealth or prosperity), beards, and coiffure drawn back and formed into the shape of a cross. Warrior figures confer power, and are usually kept by the Fuma Mwalo; they usually have an encrusted patina as animals (usually chickens) are sacrificed to them during ceremonies to recall the glories of their lives. The Fuma Mwalo also keeps small Janus figures known as kabejas, which are made magical by the addition of substances to small depressions in their heads; their role is to protect the village, and also receive libations to ensure they do so adequately. It is perhaps the caryatid stools that have received the greatest attention, however.

This is a well-rendered and elegant piece of African secular art, and would be a striking addition to any collection or sophisticated domestic setting. - (PF.4805 (LSO))


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