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 Endowment Fund, 1993.354

The theme of mother and child is important in African art and is often explored in figurative sculptures that express concerns for fertility and continuity. This delicate sculpture of a mother cradling an infant was made for a member of Bwanga Bwa Cibola, a ritual association among the Luluwa of the Democratic Republic of Congo. This organization is dedicated to the aid of women who have lost children during pregnancy or in infancy. Pregnant members of the group wear a special apron and belt, like those portrayed on the figure.

With its large head, gracefully elongated neck, bulging, muscular calves, and oversized feet, the figure conforms to Luluwa standards of beauty and artistic convention. Exaggerated scarification patterns embellish her skin, reflecting the Luluwa connection between inner goodness and outer adornment. Many of these patterns also have other meanings; for instance, the double-waved line on the forehead symbolizes the double heartbeat of a mother and the child in her womb. Concentric circles on the temples refer to the heavens and represent hope.

A Luluwa woman who has had difficulty bearing healthy children will consult a diviner, or ritual specialist, who may recommend that she be initiated into Bwanga Bwa Cibola. The association’s practices include making ritual medicine to protect mother and child and to link them with spiritual forces. In the late 19th century, a period of growing affluence for some Luluwa, wealthy women commissioned exquisitely detailed sculptures such as this one as containers for such medicines. The figure’s surface was rubbed with oil, red earth, and kaolin. Medicines were inserted in holes at the top and back of its head. Production of such figures stopped in the early 20th century.

Kisi or Old Oyo, Oyo region, Nigeria
Twin Commemorative Figures (Ere Ibeji)
Early/mid-20th century

Wood, glass beads, and thread
Left: 25.4 x 8.3 x 6.7 cm (10 x 3 1/4 x 2 5/8 in.); right: 25.4 x 7.6 x 6.7 cm (10 x 3 x 2 5/8 in.)
Gift of Deborah Stokes and Jeffrey Hammer, 1982.1513–14

The Yoruba of Nigeria have the highest recorded rate of twin births in the world. For Yoruba families, the birth of twins is greeted with rejoicing because they are believed to possess special powers and the ability to bring good fortune to those who honor them properly. However, multiple births have an increased risk of one of the twins dying during infancy. Figures such as these, called ibeji, are memorials to deceased twins. The elaborate hairstyles and beaded jewelry mark their honored status. When one dies, a single sculpture is commissioned and cared for by the mother and later by the surviving twin. If both infants die, a sculptor creates two images. The figures are ritually washed, dressed, and offered favorite foods. Over time, these actions cause their features to be worn smooth, as seen in this pair.

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