About This Artwork

Democratic Republic of the Congo

Maternity Figure, Mid–/late 19th century

Wood and pigment
28.9 x 8.6 x 8.2 cm (11 3/8 x 3 3/8 x 3 1/4 in.)

Wirt D. Walker Fund, 1993.354

This delicate rendering of a mother holding her newborn child celebrates human fertility. The figure’s coiffure, loincloth, and belt indicate membership in an organization dedicated to helping women with childbirth and the prevention of infant mortality. Scarification patterns further embellish the figure, reflecting her inner goodness through outer adornment. Many of the patterns also have other meanings—for instance, the line on her forehead symbolizes life, specifically that of a mother and the child growing in her womb. The projection below the figure’s feet probably allowed it to be placed in the ground during rituals.

— Permanent collection label

The extremely detailed naturalism of this figure reflects the customs and political realities of the mid-to-late nineteenth century, when a growing class of wealthy nobility wielded increasing power among the Luluwa. Such naturalistic figures may have served dual functions as medicinal containers and symbols of status and prestige for their wealthy owners, and may even have been intended to serve the entire community. The woman depicted here bears definite symbols of rank, including an elaborate coiffure, jewelry, and scarifications popular in the late nineteenth century.

—Revised from Notable Acquisitions at the Art Institute of Chicago, Museum Studies, vol. 29, no. 2, pp. 16-17.

Exhibition, Publication and Ownership Histories

Exhibition History

New York, N.Y., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Art and Oracle, Apr. 24–July 30, 2000, cat. 42.

Publication History

Warren Robbins, African Art in American Collections (Washington, DC: Smithsonian, 1989), pp.436 (ill.).

Constantine Petridis, "Of Mothers and Sorcerers: A Luluwa Maternity Figure," The Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, vol. 23, no. 2 (1997), pp. 182-195; 187 (ill.).

Kathleen Bickford Berzock, “African Art at the Art Institute of Chicago,” African Arts, vol. 32, no. 4 (Winter 1999), pp. 18-35; 22 (ill.).

Kathleen Bickford Berzock, “Maternity Figure,” Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, vol. 29, no. 2 (2003), pp. 16-17 (ill.).

Ownership History

Jaap (Jacob) Wiegersma, Utrecht, 1937. Mr. A.F.C.A. van Heyst (died 1962), Rotterdam, by 1962: by descent to Mr. J. van Heyst, Ottawa, Ontario, 1962; sold Sotheby’s, New York, Nov. 14, 1980, lot 227, to Tom Alexander, Alexander Gallery, St. Louis, Mo., 1980; sold to Stuart Hollander, St. Louis, Mo., by 1993; consigned to Tom Alexander, Alexander Gallery, 1993; sold to the Art Institute, 1993.

View mobile website