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Between and Mortarboard

UMMA Object Specific Fields

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Hamba (ancestor) figure

Accession Number

Hamba (ancestor) figure


Object Creation Date
circa 1920

Medium & Support
wood and string

11 4/5 in x 3 9/16 in x 3 1/16 in (30 cm x 9.05 cm x 7.78 cm)

Credit Line
Gift of Candis and Helmut Stern

Subject matter
This figure is attributed to the Chokwe from Angola, Zambia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The figure is likely either a hamba (pl. mahamba), embodying the spirit of a lineage ancestor; a kaponya (pl. tuponya), a representation of a deceased close relative; or a wanga, an object used by an nganga —an expert mediator of spirits and forces (pl. banganga)—to inflict or protect one from harm. The living appeal to ancestral spirits for their immense power to ensure abundant game and fertility, elements crucial to the community’s well-being and continuity. The spirits of the deceased are also summoned for their protective and curative powers. Protection and healing seem to be especially at play here since this figure contains three cavities in which yitumbo, or medicinal substances, composed of vegetable, animal, or mineral ingredients, were held either alone or contained in a horn; in fact, figures with small “medicine horns” affixed on top of the heads have been found amongst the Chokwe. This figure may therefore have been created in order to protect a patient from a particular affliction or malevolent force and restore him or her to good health. According to noted scholar of Chokwe art Marie-Louise Bastin, flexed legs, which are evident in many Chokwe standing figures, signify the potential vitality of the spirit who resides therein. 

African Form and Imagery:  Detroit Collects.  Ed. Judith A. Ruskin.  Detroit:  Detroit Institute of Arts Founders Society, 1996.  
Bastin, Marie-Louise.  La Sculpture Tshokwe.  Alain et Francoise Chaffin:  Meudon, 1982.  
Eidse, Ben.  The Disciple and Sorcery:  The Lunda-Chokwe View.  Newcastle upon Tyne, UK:  Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015.  

Physical Description
This male figure has a powerful body, with a smooth, bare chest that stands with knees flexed and arms bent next to the sides of the abdomen. The elaborate coiffure is styled as a braid forming concentric circles at the back of the head. The figure exhibits many of the facial traits characteristic of the Chokwe expansionistic style including half-closed eyes set in large, concave ocular cavities; small nose; arched ears; large, rectilinear mouth with fleshy lips; and a prominent disk-shaped chin. The figure dons pants depicting shredded fiber worn by masked dancers. It has large feet that lack toes; the fingers are also not shaped. Notably, the figure has several cavities: one on the top of the head, one in the middle of the abdomen, and another between its legs. These openings held medicinal ingredients which were either placed on their own or contained in a horn. The figure's body features honey coloration and a black coating, characteristics frequently seen in figures of the neighboring Lwena people.

Primary Object Classification

Primary Object Type

Additional Object Classification(s)
Wood and Woodcarving

Collection Area

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spirits (beings)

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