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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Kongo, Yombe : Yombe Mother and Child
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Yombe Mother and Child - DK.153 (LSO)
Origin: Democratic Republic of Congo
Circa: 19 th Century AD to 20 th Century AD
Dimensions: 6.5" (16.5cm) high
Collection: African Art
Medium: Wood
Condition: Extra Fine

Location: United States
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This attractive sculpture was made by a sculptor belonging to the Yombe tribe, a subgroup of the Kongo kingdom. She is depicted seated with crossed legs, her infant on her knee. As is usual for Kongo-group maternity figures, the head is tilted slightly back so that the face looks upwards. The head itself is slightly out of proportion for the body, with half-closed almond eyes, a long nose joining high, arched brows, and an open mouth with the incisor teeth showing. Her body is comparatively small by comparison, with particularly slim limbs; the attention paid to the carving seems to decrease as one moves down the figure, and it is probable that the important piece of the sculpture was the head, which is what would naturally be seen is viewed from above. She is naked except for a loincloth (only visible in rear view) and a skullcap, which denotes a certain social status. She also has a gridwork tattoo on her upper chest, and her entire back is covered with the same diamond-form tattoo pattern. Her child – the sex of which is not immediately apparently – is carefully rendered, its hands folded on its stomach. The piece is unpainted, but retains small patches of kaolin or a similar substance; these figures were made to receive libations, as part of the magical ceremonies in which they were involved. The patina reflects both libations and handling over a considerable period of time.

The Yombe are one of a group of sub-tribes (others include the Vili, Beembe, Woyo, Ngoyo and Kakongo) that made up the Kongo (or Bakongo) people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola and Gabon. The tribes were relatively stable in the 16th century, but were affected by the dual burgeoning of the powerful Loango kingdom, a division of the Bakongo, and the arrival of the Portuguese explorers, with whom they had a reasonably peaceful relationship for some time. The kingdom absorbed European traditions and religion without excessive 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. They currently number around 300,000.

While notionally independent, the subtribes display essentially the same subtext of religious and social characteristics. Society was essentially 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 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 with characteristic open- mouths, almond-shaped eyes and detailed surface work.

However, there are various stylistic variants that can be used to differentiate them, and this is perhaps nowhere more visible than in their artworks. The Yombe, for example, are renowned for their bodily scarifications, which are often depicted in their art. Other artistic characteristics include the high quality of their ivory work, their staff heads, the decoration of everyday objects, the complex surface decoration of wooden sculptures, the aggression of their nkisi nkondi and the serenity of their maternity figures, such as that depicted here. They are believed to be associated with the sentiments of submission, deference, obedience and devotion as much as maternity; in some cases the baby is actually absent.

This piece was probably domestically owned, rather than being a social focus for a community. It stands as an eloquent insight into Yombe society, as well as being a striking and attractive work of African art. - (DK.153 (LSO))


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