The Yanzi employ a variety of sculpted figures in rituals to assure their well-being. A series of figures called mbem were used in specific situations to protect against disease, reverse infertility that could ironically be caused by an mbem, or identify wrongdoers.(14) Some mbem were used to reinforce the authority of the head of an extended family or cause a woman to become sterile if she lied about an adulterous relationship under oath before an mbem. Grandmothers, in addition to chiefs and male heads of extended families, were entitled to own mbem to reinforce their authority over the women in their families.(15)
Mbem figures are carved in the form of male, female, or androgynous humans with minimal physiognomic details. The hands and feet of this diminutive female figure, for example, are rendered as faceted geometric forms. Diagonal striations incised on her face replicate the facial scarification that was in fashion when the statue was carved. Although the figure is posed frontally (see facing), it is fully three-dimensional in its conception (see rear view). The profile, for example, displays echoing and complementary angles: the upward thrust of her hairstyle is in opposition to the V-shaped ears that oppose the larger V-shaped arms and shoulders. And, her legs are flexed at the knees offering more angles. The figure's red color, the result of applications of camwood paste, indicates that a ritual specialist consecrated the mbem. When it was in use, the mbem was probably dressed in a raffia cloth, adorned with a necklace, and smelled of tobacco smoke.
The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art, cat. 49, pp. 156-157.
14. Felix, Marc Leo. 100 Peoples of Zaire and Their Sculpture: The Handbook. Brussels: Zaire Basin Art History Research Foundation, 1987. pp. 196-197.