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Kongo-Yombe Maternity Figure Phemba

Kongo-Yombe Maternity Figure Phemba

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Kongo peoples, Yombe subgroup, early to mid. 20th century, Mayombe region, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Exceptional, rare and important wooden maternity figure, known as phemba (also pfemba), is an idealized Kongo archetype of historical feminine beauty. Mother, who is cradling child, is seated upright, legs crossed, atop a small base, supporting child's head with right hand and legs with left hand. Adorned with attributes of Kongo leadership, including a royal knotted hat (mpu), intricate raised scarifications in geometric patterns over shoulders, chest and back, the firm breasts, filed teeth, a necklace and bracelets denote this figure as a woman of elite status. The figure's face is alluring and has a wonderful profile, constructed from delicate lines and light relief within a smooth oval form, with a flat, broad nose, pointed chin and arched brows. Her piercing oval eyes stare directly ahead. Well-modelled protruding open mouth showing two incisors and a tongue. Symmetrical ears are carved spatially. Amongst the Yombe, red color is believed to be tied to birth and death. During ritual use of a phemba figure, and as a sign of mediation, the diviner rubs the surfaces of the figure with a mixture of palm oil and camwood powder, leaving a red residue on the figure.

Wooden figures representing a woman with a child are common in the art of the Kongo peoples, especially among the Kongo-Yombe subgroup. These figures possibly are connected with a women's cult (mpemba), said to have been founded by a famous midwife, and concerned with fertility and the treatment of infertility. Two main variants of the phemba iconography can be identified: a cross-legged woman with a dead infant on her lap and a cross-legged, kneeling or crouching woman with a living infant. Leo Bittremieux, priest and ethnographer, in a 1939 letter to the Musee Royal de l'Afrique Centrale in Tervuren, wrote that "Phemba" denotes "the one who gives children-in-potentia." A pfemba child is a magically conceived nkisi child, a fragile emissary of the spirit world. Because the child is unexpressive and supine, it has been described as dead.

Excellent condition. Wear consistent with age and ritual use. Minor cracks and abrasion. Softly worn surface patina. Beautiful reddish brown color. Size approx. 15,3cm x 6,5cm x 6,0cm.

Provenance: From the estate of Jan Ölander, Sweden. From 1984 to 1987, Jan Ölander served as the Swedish ambassador to Zambia and Malawi.

For a similar examples see:

Female figure with child, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian, Accession Number: 86-12-12 (

Figure of Mother and Child (Phemba), The Brooklyn Museum, Accession Number: 22.1138 (

References and further reading:

Icons: Ideals and Power in the Art of Africa, Herbert M. Cole, Smithsonian, 1990.

National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution. “Smithsonian Learning Lab Resource: Female figure with child.” Smithsonian Learning Lab, Smithsonian Office of Educational Technology, 3 Nov. 2015. (

The Four Moments of the Sun: Kongo Art in Two Worlds, Robert Farris Thompson & Joseph Cornet, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, 1981.

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