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Male Figure

A work made of wood and pigment.

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  • A work made of wood and pigment.


Early/mid–20th century


Democratic Republic of the Congo
Central Africa

About this artwork

The Mbole live along the Lomami River in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Most Mbole artworks relate to the complex and secretive age-grade organization known as Lilwa. Figures such as this one function as moral guideposts for young boys who are being ushered into adulthood through initiation into Lilwa. These sculptures represent victims of hanging—the punishment for actions and behaviors considered to be outside of the established moral and judicial codes of Mbole society and of Lilwa more specifically. One of the behaviors especially discouraged among young initiates is transgressing the code of secrecy that encircles the age-grade association.
This male figure displays many of the formal features found on other examples of the genre. His shoulders are turned inward and arms are thrust forward with elbows bent out, creating a rhythmic sense of repetition with the legs and gently bent knees. The narrow and elongated torso bows slightly in the opposite direction from the thrusting arms and shoulders. The head is flat with a roughly heart-shaped face that leads into a geometric and vertical hairstyle or headdress above the brows. The faces of these figures are typically colored white, signifying death, but often other parts of the body and head show the application of red and ocher pigments—usually on the chest, forehead, and hairstyle. Most of these figures are less than 30 centimeters in height. This figure, however, is taller than usual, at 38 centimeters, and others are as tall as 60 centimeters. As the scholar William Fagg has noted, the sculptors of these figures capture the essence of a hanging, limp body; although carved in wood and relatively vertical in form, the bodies are flaccid and without vitality. The figure’s facial expression and body language seem to show sorrow and resignation rather than fear or horror. The two holes on either end of the top of the sculpture suggests its mode of presentation; typically they are mounted on a small board or bed with straps that traverse the holes on the head, lying on its back along with other similar figures. The sculptures are given the names of the individuals on whom they were based, no doubt providing a strong dose of realism to Lilwa initiates, who are developing their own moral understandings in preparation for adult life.


Currently Off View


Arts of Africa




Male Figure


Democratic Republic of the Congo (Object made in)

Date  Dates are not always precisely known, but the Art Institute strives to present this information as consistently and legibly as possible. Dates may be represented as a range that spans decades, centuries, dynasties, or periods and may include qualifiers such as c. (circa) or BCE.



Wood and pigment


H.: 38.1 cm (15 in.)

Credit Line

Gift of Anne and Jay Whipple, Jr.

Reference Number


Extended information about this artwork

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