The precise origin and context of this female figure, a woman holding calabash rattles, are unknown. Stylistically it is related to a category of white-faced “spirit masks” used in funerary dances by numerous tribes along the Ogowe River in Gabon; these include the Ashira, the Bapunu, and the Lumbo. Generally such figurative sculptures served a protective as well as a fertility-enhancing function.
The Art Museum’s statuette is part of an extensive collection of objects amassed between 1885 and 1890 by Carl Steckelmann of Columbus, Indiana, who served as an agent for an English trading company active in the Congo. Like many other items in the collection, this figure was derived from the coastal areas of the French and the Belgian Congo. Its rhythmic contours and precise carving make it one of the most important surviving examples of classic African art in America today. The Art Museum’s statue is distinguished by the elaborate, raised scarification patterns that decorate its face and body.
The Art Museum first featured Steckelmann’s collection of African art in 1889. The show was a resounding success, and the Art Museum purchased the objects a year later. Thus, the Cincinnati Art Museum was perhaps the first museum in the United States to acquire a major collection of African art.