This remarkable ivory sculpture was made in Angola by the Chokwe group, and is an exceptional piece. It is a standing male, with flexed knees, a protuberant abdomen, a very highly patinated surface and a large, complex coiffure or piece of headwear. The attention to detail, including the fingers, which are resting on the stomach, the hatching of the hairstyle and the central forehead scarring (which is known as cingelyengelye) is extraordinary. The smaller details are picked out in black, a result of the ageing process. This figure is not merely decorative. It is a representation of the Chokwe’s mythical founder, Tshibinda Ilunga, the Luba ancestor who gave rise to the Chokwe. His hands are either oversized, as shown here, or are holding a male and a female figure, signifying his ancestrality.
The Tchokwe are distributed across Angola, the DR of Congo and Zambia, and can trace their ancestry to the Lunda Empire of the 15th century, when a mass-migration occurred out of Lunda/Luba territory. The resulting kingdoms – including the Tchokwe, Luena, Songo, Ovimbundu and Imbagala – were all closely allied until the mid 19th century when the Tchokwe, following a great famine, migrated south. Their art and culture is thus distinctive compared to that of the other Lunda-descended tribes.
Society is governed by a God-King (Mwana Ngana), under whom men’s (Mugonge) and women’s (Ukule) societies control age classes and ensure social harmony. This system has resulted in a series of masks that are designed to defuse social tensions, celebrate important events (i.e. circumcisions), impose judiciary powers and promote fertility, health and well-being. The main mask forms for which the Tchokwe are known are the male Cihongo mask – which symbolises wealth, power and judicial authority – and the female Pwo mask, which is an embodiment of idealised femininity. The two “sexes” were sometimes danced together at ceremonies to ensure fertility and prosperity. The statues made by the Chokwe are primarily concerned with representing their ancestors, as seen here, or queens. Some more flippant representations were made from the mid 20th century for the tourist trade.
Tshibinda Ilunga is very important to the Chokwe, and for this reason, representations of him are usually very well-rendered. Ivory representations are rare, and belonged to very high-anking members of society. This is an impressive piece of African art.
- (PF.4018 (LSO))