Prestige Adze

Accession Number

Prestige Adze


Artist Nationality
Hemba (culture or style)

Object Creation Date
circa 1880

Medium & Support
wood, iron, and brass tacks

14 15/16 in x 11 13/16 in x 1 3/16 in (37.94 cm x 30 cm x 3.02 cm)

Credit Line
Gift of Candis and Helmut Stern

Subject matter
Attributed to the Southern Hemba of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, this adze constituted an instrumental element of the chief’s regalia and would have been present in royal ceremonies including investiture.  Instead of being used as an actual tool or weapon, this exquisite adze would have been worn over the shoulder of a Hemba chief as a show of prestige.

The finely detailed head featured at the end of the adze represents a deceased female ancestor whose spirit not only guarantees the power of the chief but also confers protection to members of his community. Thus, as an insignia, the adze legitimates his authoritative position and revered status as well as serves as a symbolic reminder--both to himself and his people--of his tremendous social responsibility. 

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 Hemba adze, or chief’s ceremonial ax, is decorated with an elegantly carved female head upon the end of its smooth handle while an iron blade has been lodged into its oval base. This adze exhibits the characteristic hallmarks of a Southern Hemba style, which in turn was strongly influenced by the neighboring Luba. The head bears an elongated, oviod-shaped face, a wide convex forehead, coffeebean-shaped eyes within ocular recesses, a triangular nose, and full lips. An elaborate pulled-back hairstyle in the form of a chignon (kibanda), features a cruciform motif. Four brass tacks that have been inserted into the extreme top, bottom, left and right points of the face echo this crucifix shape.

Primary Object Classification
Arms and Armor

Primary Object Type

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
ceremonial weapons
heads (representations)
insignias (devices)

& Author Notes

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