Figure of Mother and Child (Phemba)
Arts of Africa
On View: Special Exhibitions, Egyptian Galleries, 3rd Floor
This Kongo sculpture appears to depict a mother and her child, though the adult figure looks beyond the infant, who doesn’t lean into her breast. The inconsistency between their possible relationship and gestures suggests a deeper meaning. In the Yombe region, Kongo society is matrilineal and has female clan founders (mpemba). Their sweeping hairstyle, seen here, is similarly called mphemba, alluding to that role. Thus, this mphemba-wearing woman is likely a clan progenitor, and the other figure her descendant. This and other similar sculptures are linked to a Kongo fertility-focused women’s cult that flourished from 1770 to 1850, during the height of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. During this period, women both raised children and took on customarily male agricultural roles. This sculpture underscores how Kongo women supported future generations during a time of widespread social upheaval and trauma.
Wood, glass, upholstery studs, metal, metal and glass buttons, resin
11 x 5 x 4 1/2 in. (27.9 x 12.7 x 11.4 cm) (show scale)
Museum Expedition 1922, Robert B. Woodward Memorial Fund
Prior to 1922, provenance not yet documented; by 1922, acquired by François Poncelet of Brussels, Belgium; 1922, purchased in Brussels from François Poncelet by Stewart Culin for the Brooklyn Museum.
Carved wooden mother and child. Mother, who is nursing child, is seated cross-legged, supporting child's head with right hand and legs with left hand. She has high, spade-like headdress, open protruding mouth revealing filed teeth, and glass eyes with black pupils. Ears are carved spatially and have pink bead earrings strung on wire through ear lobes. Over much of shoulders and back are scarification marks. Above breasts are a band and a necklace. Infant child, with mirror in center of abdomen, has hand on mother's stomach. Second mirror is attached with four nails to lower part of mother's back. There is a deep crack running down the figure of the mother from below her chin through the torso. Other cracks throughout figure and base. Often old crack repairs open up again and need to be refilled.
Yombe artist. Figure of Mother and Child (Phemba), 19th century. Wood, glass, upholstery studs, metal, metal and glass buttons, resin, 11 x 5 x 4 1/2 in. (27.9 x 12.7 x 11.4 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Museum Expedition 1922, Robert B. Woodward Memorial Fund, 22.1138. Creative Commons-BY (Photo: , 22.1138_threequarter_left_PS9.jpg)
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