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Grave Marker (Tumba).Democratic Republic of the Congo. Kongo ba Boma artist, 19th century. Steatite, pigment, 23 x 6 x 6 in. (58.4 x 15.2 x 15.2 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Museum Expedition 1922, Robert B. Woodward Memorial Fund, 22.1203
Stone is only rarely used as a medium for sculpture in sub-Saharan Africa. This figure, carved from steatite, or soapstone, with details of the eyes painted in, belongs to a group ofsculptures known as tumba (plural: bitumba). They were made to adorn the graves of important members of a community. In this case, the figure of a seated ruler wears beads, bracelets, and an mpu cap, a woven, tight-fitting hat adorned with the claws and teeth of a leopard and reserved for use by chiefs.
The asymmetrical, active pose is rare in African sculpture, which is usually frontal and static.The coastal area of the Congo and Angola where these works are found has been exposed to trade with Europeans, especially the Portuguese, for hundreds of years. It appears that the creation of these figures developed in the mid-nineteenth century and lasted into the first decades of the twentieth. They are called tumba from the old Portuguese word for tomb, and the art form itself was probablyinspired by the narrative monuments for Europeans buried in Kongo cemeteries.
The posture has been interpreted as a chief in a pensive mood distancing himself from the noise of the mundane world in order to concentrate on important matters. As he smokes his short-stemmed pipe, he communicates with the spirits of his ancestors.
Power Figure (Nkisi Nkondi). Democratic Republic of the Congo. KaKongoKongo artist, 19th century. Wood, iron, glass mirror, resin, pigment, 33 7/8 x 13 3/4 x 11 in. (86 x 34.9 x 27.9 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Museum Expedition 1922, Robert B. Woodward Memorial Fund, 22.1421
An nkisi nkondi serves as a container for potent ingredients used in magic and medicine in judicial and healing contexts. To make an nkisi nkondi, a carver begins by sculpting a male human or animalfigure with a cavity in the abdomen. Then a ritual expert completes the work by placing ingredients with supernatural powers on the object and in the cavity provided. He activates the figure by breathing into the cavity and immediately seals it off with a mirror. Nails and blades are driven into the figure, either to affirm an oath or to destroy an evil force responsible for an affliction ordisruption of the community. The pose, with hands on hips, symbolizes the nkondi's readiness to defend a righteous person and to destroy an enemy.
Face Mask. Democratic Republic of the Congo. Lele artist, late 19th or early 20th century. Wood, pigments, fiber, 13 x 8 1/2 in. (33 x 21.6 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Milton and Frieda Rosenthal, Carll H. de Silver Fund and A. Augustus Healy Fund, 82.160
The Lelemake masks that have much in common with those of their Bushoong, Shoowa, and Ngeende neighbors of the Kuba kingdom but are much more rare. Stylistically, they are usually much flatter than those of the Kuba and are generally decorated with red and white pigments. This Lele carver made imaginative and skillful use of pigment to underline volume contrasts such as the convex, almond-shaped eyes–withmultiple eyebrows stacked on top of each other to accentuate the eyes–and the pronounced relief of the nose, ears, and cicatrization marks.
The masks appear principally at the funerals of chiefs and elders but are also used in annual performances that celebrate and teach the history of Lele origins and migrations. In those performances, they are associated with the founding clans of the...
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