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Between and Mortarboard

UMMA Object Specific Fields

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Female Figure

Accession Number

Female Figure


Artist Nationality
Bembe (Kongo)

Object Creation Date
circa 1870

Medium & Support
wood and tukula powder

9 15/16 in x 3 1/16 in x 2 3/8 in (25.24 cm x 7.78 cm x 6.03 cm)

Credit Line
Gift of Candis and Helmut Stern

Subject matter
This anthropomorphic figure is the female counterpart of a pair of carved, wooden sculptures attributed to the Bembe, who today live in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Belonging to a rare, ancient pre-Bembe style and carved by the same craftsman, there are a few theories as to who this couple represents. First, these male and female figures may symbolize the clan’s founding ancestral couple. As the primordial progenitors, their powerful spirits continue to watch over their descendants in the afterlife. If the ancestral spirits are neglected, misfortune may vengefully strike the living, and if they are revered and paid dutiful homage, then the lineage is assured protection, prosperity, and progeny.
     Second, it is also possible that this couple may have been used by a milindi ya batee, or a Bembe ritual specialist. Since figural representations embody spirits, a diviner could have used these figures to hex an actual couple by specially crafting a mixture of “medicines,” in fact, poisons, to generate an illness. This is evidenced by the fact that medicinal substances (derived from animal and vegetal ingredients of symbolic rather than pharmacological value) have been meticulously tied to the male’s figure and, at one point, probably the female’s as well. Additionally, both figures have cavities in the fontanelle region of their crowns; this is where animal horns carrying more medicine would have been inserted. The expressions of pain revealed in the figures’ shut eyes and agape mouths suggest the intention to inflict harm.
     Yet, another theory is possible. A milindi ya banya, or healer could have confiscated the figures from a black magician and proceeded to deactivate the malicious spell from the victims. In order to “disenchant” and cure the patients, the healer will use the same figures employed in the original sorcery in order to exorcise the spirit responsible for producing the malady.

Maurer, Evan M. and Niangi Batulukisi.  Spirits Embodied:  Art of the Congo, Selections from the Helmut F. Stern Collection.  Minneapolis:  The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 1999.

Physical Description
This carved wooden figure depicts a standing female, and is one of a pair that includes a male figure also carved by the same hand. According to noted art historian Niangi Batulukisi, these two figures deviate from the classical Bembe style and are “an extreme rarity” due to the fact that they are likely connected to an ancient pre-Bembe style.

The female figure’s trunk is disproportionately long, while the legs appear stockier and are slightly flexed at the knees. Her facial features include narrow eyes set in round, ocular cavities and an open mouth. The hairstyle is of a simple design. The breasts and the umbilicus protrude outward, the shoulders curve inward, and the palms of the hand rest upon either side of the abdomen. Traces of tukula powder can be found upon the figure’s surface.

It is almost certain that the female figure’s torso was at one point wrapped with medicinal ingredients, just like her male counterpart. Moreover, a hole appears on the crown of her head, likely intended for the placement of an animal horn containing medicinal ingredients, just as one appears on his.

Primary Object Classification

Primary Object Type

Additional Object Classification(s)
Ritual Object

Collection Area

If you are interested in using an image for a publication, please visit for more information and to fill out the online Image Rights and Reproductions Request Form. Keywords
figures (representations)
spirits (beings)
traditional medicine

3 Related Resources

Medicines and Remedies
(Part of: History of Medicine - American Association of Historians of Medicine (AAHM))
Treatment and Healing
(Part of: History of Medicine - American Association of Historians of Medicine (AAHM))

& Author Notes

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