Among the Yombe, carved wooden human figures portray individual ancestors who may have founded a lineage or otherwise made important contributions to their families and their communities. Enshrined in small memorial houses in cemeteries, these idealized sculptures guard the dead, including their own remains, and provide a means of contact with the ancestor and other spirits in the realm of the dead (mpemba).
This kneeling female figure and child (pfemba) represents an important woman. She has a high, miterlike coiffure or headdress and wears five bracelets, which exceed the number worn by ordinary Yombe women, on her left wrist. Her filed teeth, visible through parted lips, indicate she was properly initiated into womanhood, and the painted marks may represent scarification. The white kaolin covering her body has the ashen quality of the dead, but it also refers to purity and moral correctness, both important Yombe values. She probably represents a clan founder.
The figure leans slightly forward and kneels in an attitude of respect while balancing a male child on her left foot. Her left hand supports the child's back as her right one rests of top of a bowl-shaped pot containing potent medicine that can cure illness or resolve social conflicts. Her palm is open in a gesture of generosity. Her glass-covered eyes afford her access to the worlds of the living and the dead.(28) Taken together, the attributes of this figure-its coloring, posture, and gesture-and the presence of the child and the medicine indicate this woman's contribution was that of a "spiritually imbued mother," who was a great healer and protector of children.(29) Many published accounts of sculptures of this kind depict the child with his arms across his chest as exemplified by figures in the collections of the Yale University Art Gallery and the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution.(30) The child in the Dallas figure clings to his mother's leg in the same way as that in an early twentieth-century photograph of a memorial enclosure (fig. 47).
The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art, cat. 72, pp. 206-207.
28. Thompson, Robert Farris, and Joseph Cornet. The Four Moments of the Sun: Kongo Art in Two Worlds. Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1981. p. 145.
29. Thompson, Robert Farris. “Icons for the Brave and Generous: Kongo Art at Yale.” Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin (2005). pp. 86–87.
30. Ibid. p. 86, fig. 9.
National Museum of African Art. Selected Works from the Collection of the National Museum of African Art. Vol. 1. Washington, D.C.: National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1999. vol. 1, pp. 118-119, cat. no. 80.