FEMALE PHEMBA FIGURE
The artist has realistically depicted various facial details (left), taking care to reveal the teeth, which have been sculpted into points, an aesthetic practice in Kongo cultures. The shaping of the face, particularly in the cheeks and chin, has been carried out with great skill and attention to detail. Looking at the face in its entirety, it almost seems as if a discreet sound is escaping from the mouth. The thick eyebrows and the upward inclination of the head add to the feeling of life.
The rest of the body, sculpted harmoniously, emphasises the sober diamond-shaped scarification on the shoulders, breasts and back. She nonetheless wears a necklace, and bracelets on her upper arms, wrists and ankles. The back of the head reveals very careful artwork in the depiction of the hairstyle.
Seated on a throne, her legs dangling, she holds a vessel in her right hand, and in her left hand the arm of a child who sits on her left knee. The whole artefact is very detailed, and sculpted in a light, weathered wood.
A Phemba of great beauty, uniting shape, balance, and expressivity in a cultural language unique to the Yombe people, this important work of art shows the mastery and dexterity with which Congolese artists sculpted in wood these masterpieces that speak to the sense and the imagination.
Yombe Phemba, Democratic Republic of Congo
Late 19th century
Height c. 13.77 inches/c. 35 cm
Wood with light patina
Collection Alain Naoum
Origin: Field collected by a colonial administrator, Mr Puissant, by inheritance to family: Pierre Dartevelle
PHEMBA, THE NURTURING MOTHER IN YOMBE SOCIETY – A JOURNEY THROUGH FEMININE SYMBOLISM
Depictions of ‘mother and child’ are commonly found in numerous cultures, reimagined multiple times over the course of history. As well as recalling this universal image, each civilisation uses the ‘mother and child’ to emphasise the specificities of its own history, making a direct connection with the moment of origin as told in its creation myth.
A universal theme, the ‘mother and child’ is a subject that is found as commonly in African cultures as in others (Western, etc.). It can be expressed in different kinds of art (for example, sculpture and painting) and evokes a fundamental feature of humanity.
Here, we will tackle this theme using the framework of a journey in time and space. Starting with a general approach to the theme, the main objective is to highlight the various cultural codes and symbolic foundations that underlie these images and depictions.
The ‘mother and child’ theme suggests a biological connection, or perhaps a relationship based on protection, nourishment and the transmission of values. As well as these maternal concepts, it also evokes more abstract notions, which go back, on the one hand, to the place of the mother and wife in society and her role in bringing up children, and, on the other hand, to the original nurturing mother, the founder of the civilization.
Starting, therefore, with a concept that has spread to numerous cultures, it is easy to explore this notion using various interpretative frameworks (biological, social and spiritual), and so to highlight the cultural specificities of the civilizations that have used this female image. To do so, we shall approach this theme using various works of art, created in different places and eras.