The Hemba peoples memorialized distinguished ancestors (e.g., chiefs, warriors, and heads of lineages) in sculpted wooden figures (singiti) that served as vessels for their spirits. A visual genealogical record, the figures were cared for by a designated member of the lineage, who arranged them in the order in which they lived. The caretaker periodically honored the singiti with animal sacrifices; in return, the ancestors protected their descendants.
Although the singiti figures portray individual ancestors, their likenesses are universal. Each rendering is of a bearded male standing erect on a circular base with shoulders square, arms held close to the body, and hands resting on either side of a protuberant abdomen, which with its prominent navel, signifies family and continuity. With eyes closed, the ancestor figures display a calm, impassive expression that characterized polite social interaction in Hemba society. The crossed lobes of the cruciform hairstyle are arranged over a square of woven raffia35 and evoke the four cardinal points (directions) of the universe as well as the crossroads where the realms of the living and the dead intersect.(36)
This singiti is adorned with a necklace of expensive imported blue glass beads that served as currency before coins and paper money were introduced. His loins were probably covered with a woven plant-fiber cloth that was draped over the strip of leather that remains.(37)
The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art, cat. 75, pp. 212-213.
36. Visonà, Monica, Robin Poynor, Herbert M. Cole, and Michael Harris. A History of Art in Africa, 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 2007. p. 408, fig. 12, 13.
37. Compare to a Hemba figure from the Walt Disney—Tishman African Art Collection.
Kreamer, Christine Mullen, with Bryna Freyer and Andrea Nicolls. African Vision: The Walt Disney-Tishman African Art Collection. Washington, D.C.: National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution; Munich: Prestel, 2007. p. 143, cat. no. 40.