With its majestic, poised stance, this imposing male statue is one of the Hemba people’s great ancestor figures. As a masterpiece from a limited body of works, this effigy is associated with the prestigious Niembo de la Luika workshops, a group based in the Luika river area in the heart of the Hemba region.
- Former Patricia Anne Withofs collection (1934-1998), London
- Alain de Monbrison, Paris
- Former Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière collection, Paris
- musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac (70.2017.66.15), Gift Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière.
The work’s original context
Hemba ancestor figures: commemorating deceased chiefs and legitimising power
With its majestic, poised stance, this imposing male statue is one of the Hemba people’s great ancestor figures. The Hemba people are an ethic group in the southeast of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, based in a region stretching from the Congo River to Lake Tanganyika.
A profound gentleness and powerful inner peace emanates from these ancestral figures, which are referred to using the generic plural term lusingiti (singular: singiti) in Kihemba. In terms of style, these sculptures were long associated with artworks from their neighbours, the Luba people. These emblematic objects were made to commemorate the founding ancestors of lineage segments: deceased chiefs with ‘open eyes looking out at another world’, honoured through these idealised portrayals. Though accounts of these sculptures’ use and context are rare, the names of some chiefs associated with these ancestor figures are known to us today.
These effigies were figures of intercession between the world of the living and the world of ancestors. They were usually carved from iroko wood (chlorophodra excelsa), the iroko tree often being planted in the village centre to honour the memory of ancestors, who were the guarantors of prosperity among the living. As Constantine Petridis explains, “the lusingiti were awakened through the infusion of the life-force or vital energy of the chief, whose memory they would help preserve. In this way, the commemorative portraits of these ancestor figures would not represent their subject. Rather, they would give them a presence through which they could influence the lives of their descendants. As Schmalenbach writes, these statues, which are “always in tension between representation and ‘incarnation’, […] are not just the depiction of a given being, but constitute that being.”1
Many authors have underlined the secret life of these lusingiti effigies, defined as “spiritual creations living entirely in the other world”. These sculptures would only appear in public on an exceptional basis. Sometimes numbering over twenty, they would be kept out of view, in the family chief’s house or in a small dedicated hut, a kind of funerary sanctuary built in front of the chief’s dwelling. The bones of deceased chiefs would also be placed in these secret huts. These ancestral relics honouring the memory of chiefs were vehicles for genealogical transmission and, by extension, would give legitimate power and help lay claim to possession of land. The more statues owned by a chief, the better the guarantee of their renown and ancientness of lineage. According to François Neyt, “Effigies of deceased chiefs were part of a cult founded on the concept of survival and on a system of kinship. Each ancestor is identified in time, and confers on its owner a precise genealogical tree that relates the history of his family, and especially his authority to occupy his lands.”2
2 NEYT François, Une effigie hemba d’exception, Paris, Galerie Bernard Dulon, 2004.
Archetypes and influences
These male ancestor statues are usually represented standing, sometimes sitting and holding insignias of power. They are characterised by contemplative faces, well-balanced proportions, sturdy, round shoulders, a slightly protruding chest and a powerful neck sometimes ringed. The full, well-rounded shapes crafted with care help give this distinctive impression of calm, introspective strength and nobility that emanates from these striking works. Although these creations were long considered a stylistic variant of sculptures by the eastern Luba people. Hemba statuary nonetheless represents a style in its own right, even though the Luba influence is undeniable. It also bears stylistic, cultural and religious ties to the Songye, Tabwa and Boyo people, and to the ethnic ‘pre-Bembe’ groups based in the Lake Tanganyika region.
The Niembo de la Luika workshops
As a masterpiece from a limited body of works, this effigy is associated with the prestigious Niembo de la Luika workshops, a group based in the Luika river area in the heart of the Hemba region. Works associated with this style are characterised by long oval faces and more slender proportions.
The effigy is very similar to a seated statue in the former Jacques Kerchache collection, and François Neyt associates it with the same workshop. The sculpture presents the same suppleness of shapes and the same precision in the way the details are portrayed, especially in the ears, the plump lips, the thin aquiline nose slightly pinched at the pronounced axial bridge, the half-open almond-shaped eyes and the arching eyebrows finely crafted like the chinstrap beard and the diadem tightly holding the quadrifoil hairstyle.
Formal structures, gestures and symbolic attributes
While the dark, lacquered sheen attests to the regular ritual anointments performed on the effigy, the sculptural choices in producing this figure are likewise meaningful. In this way, the formal structure and certain ornamental details like the headdress highlight the body’s symbolic parts.
he diversity and refinement of headdresses, which were key markers of social status and cultural belonging, made a strong impression on Europeans who travelled through this region of Africa. The quadrifoil or cross-shaped structures also found on Luba artworks are typical of the region and are reproduced on the Hemba people’s ancestor effigies.
Our effigy’s beautiful hairpiece is made up of a quadrifoil chignon, extended with vertical and horizontal plaits crossing over each other at the back. It draws attention to the head, the home of intelligence and vital energy. This intertwining of plaits evokes one of the essential purposes of “the ancestor, who, from season to season, would lead their group to new lands to cultivate and who conserved precious seeds in their hair.”3
The importance of the lineage’s continued existence is also materially symbolised by the notably prominent umbilical area. The umbilical zone symbolises the ontological link with the ancestors. It is often highlighted in sub-Saharan African art and framed by hands with palms turned to the sky as a sign of protection. This belly area with a protruding navel represents the tribe’s vital centre. In Kihemba, the words for belly and clan are the same. Lastly, the beards and diadems are signs of authority, while intercession with the ancestors is evoked in the half-closed eyes, open to interior and exterior worlds at once.
History of the work and its background
Patricia Anne Withofs (1934–1998) acquired this statue pre-1977, at a time when these works were still very little known and poorly identified. She was an avid collector of eclectic works, acquiring masterpieces both in modern and non-European art. She was one of those rare women who, in the second half of the 20th century, made a strong impression by putting together outstanding collections that were determined by a resolute search for high quality. Marc Ladreit de la Charrière acquired this Hemba statue, which occupied a specially chosen spot in his office before joining the collections of the musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac in 2017.
Selected bibliography and cartography
Thierry Renard (2020), musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac, Paris.
BAEKE Viviane, BOUTTIAUX-NDIAYE Anne-Marie, DE PALMENAER Els, VERSWIJVER Gustaaf, et. al., Treasures from the Africa-Museum Tervuren, Tervuren, Musée Royal de l’Afrique centrale, 1995.
COLLE Pierre, Les Baluba (Congo belge). Sociologie descriptive, Brussels, Albert Dewit, 2. Vol, 1913.
DE STRYCKER Louis, NEYT François, Approche des arts hemba, Villiers le Bel, Arts d’Afrique Noire, 1975.
HORE Edward C., « On the twelfe Tribes of Tanganyika » in Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, XII, 1882.
JACQUES Victor et STORMS Emile, « Notes sur l’ethnologie de la partie orientale de l’Afrique équatoriale » in Bulletin de la Société d’Anthropologie de Bruxelles, 1886-1887.
JOUBERT Hélène (Dir.), Éclectique : Une collection du XXIe siècle, Paris, musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac ; Flammarion, 2016.
LA GAMMA Alissa, Heroic Africans: Legendary Leaders, Iconic Sculptures, New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012.
LIVINGSTONE DAVID, Dernier journal du Docteur David Livingstone, Hachette, Paris, 1876, 2. vol.
NEYT François, La grande statuaire Hemba du Zaïre, Louvain-la-Neuve, Institut Supérieur d'Archéologie et d'Histoire de l'Art, 1977.
NEYT François, Une effigie hemba d’exception, Paris, Galerie Bernard Dulon, 2004.
OLBRECHTS Frans, Arts plastiques du Congo, Erasme, Brussels, 1946.
SCHMALENBACH Werner (Dir.), Arts de l’Afrique noire dans la collection Berbier-Mueller, Geneva, Nathan, 1988.
SPINA Luigi et PETRIDIS Constantin, Hemba, Milan, 5 Continents, 2017.