A particularly sensitive tradition of maternity sculpture emerged in the last millennium among the peoples of the Kongo kingdom in the western Congo. Wood sculptures known as phemba were created for use in association with women's cults, and found their highest expression among the Kongo-Yombe subgroup. The Kunin Yombe Maternity Statue, previously in the collection of Robert Rubin, is the finest example of this tradition known.
Two main variants of the phemba iconography can be identified: a cross-legged woman with a dead infant on her lap and a cross-legged, kneeling or crouching woman with a living infant. The iconography of the Rubin maternity group showing the diminutive infant sitting on the mother's proper left foot with the mother's proper left hand tenderly touching the infant's head while her proper right hand is held in offering position above a vessel is rare. Aside from the present figure, the only known examples of this iconography are the maternity group in the Ethnologisches Museum - Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin (acquired in 1896, accession no. "III C 6286", Einstein 1915: pl. 64) and three figures in sub-style K-4 according to Lehuard's classification (Lehuard 1989: 566, fig. K-4-1-1, Dallas Museum of Art; 569, fig. K-4-2-3, Private Collection; 570, fig. K-4-3-1, collection of Georg Baselitz).
Discussing the Berlin phemba, which features the same rare iconography as the present figure, crouching on one knee and with one hand resting with palm upturned upon a pottery vessel, Koloss and Ezra (1990: 34) note: "Figures representing a woman with a child are common in the art of the peoples of Lower Zaire, especially among the Yombe. The mother is often depicted with the marks of high social status and consciously acquired beauty: a high, miter-shaped hairstyle, filed teeth, a necklace of glass or coral beads, a cord tied above the breasts, and bracelets and armbands. Although such figures are usually depicted seated with crossed legs, this one [the Berlin figure, like the present figure] crouches with one knee on the ground, the other raised. [The child's] head [is] cupped in her hand. The mother rests her other hand, palm upward, on a pottery jar at her side.
"A Yombe wooden mother-and-child figure in the Musée Royal de l'Afrique Centrale in Tervuren is reported by its collector, Léo Bittremieux, to have been owned by a powerful male diviner for a whom it represented the source of his own divinitory and generative powers. It was called phemba, a word that Bittremieux thought to be derived from kivemba, meaning to broadcast or eject, as in the seeds of potential children which accumulate in either a man or a woman. Thus, rather than representing a particular woman and child, or even a concept as specific as motherhood, the Yombe image of a nurturing woman may express the more general idea of fertility and creativity as it applies to all people, male as well as female (Maesen 1960: pl. 1; van Geluwe 1978: 147-50)."
Dumouchelle (2009: 194) notes that the KiKongo term phemba means "white", and "suggests kaolin, a white chalk that is considered a symbol of fecundity and is often used in a diviner's, or nganga's, invocations. The word may also be derived from the term kivemba, meaning 'to broadcast' or 'eject,' further underlining a woman's role as the progenitor of both man and woman. Despite its outwardly intimate, nurturing pose, this piece demonstrates the regal passivity of many varieties of mother-and-child carvings; rather than representing a particular woman or even a human relationship, the pair is thought to function on a metaphorical plane, representing and celebrating womanhood as the archetypal (and, in this case, aristocratically ideal) source of creative power. As such, it certainly would have served to stimulate and strengthen the nganga's practice."
Furthermore, Dumouchelle (ibid.: 194, fn. 3) relays that "A missionary's field report from early in the twentieth century recounts encountering a nganga who claimed his phemba represented his ‘mother’ and carried the figure, maternally, in a cotton sling.” According to Raoul Lehuard's (1989: 525-531) classification, the Rubin maternity group belongs to the Yombe sub-style of Bula-Maku or style J-12. For a stylistically closely related Yombe power figure see Sotheby's, New York, The William W. Brill Collection of African Art, November 17, 2006, lot 103 and Lehuard (1989: 531, post card showing in situ photograph, the two figures left and right of the central figure).
The American novelist, poet and civil right activist James Baldwin (1924-1987) discussed the Kunin Yombe Maternity Statue in his contribution to the catalogue of the exhibition Perspectives: Angles on African Art at New York's Museum for African Art (Baldwin in Center for African Art 1987: 120): "The key is her stance, the way she holds the baby in one hand; she's at once preparing the baby, and preparing to let him go. She sees what he's going to be facing and he doesn't see it yet. The baby is turned toward her. She has one hand protecting him, on his head. It may be that the baby is facing that way, but I think not. I think the baby is facing towards her. Her eyes look far seeing - into the baby's future. She might be anointing the baby. She's preparing him, in any case, for a journey. She knows about the journey - he doesn't yet. And she's also warning his enemies. Ah, but again, another time and space."
Prior to entering the collection of Myron Kunin, the Yombe Maternity Statue was owned by the great New York collector Robert Rubin, who focused on acquiring singular, top-quality pieces in each major category of Sub-Saharan African Art. Indeed the Rubin maternity is exceptional in both quality and iconography and is without doubt the very best example of this style.
Please call 1-800-555-5555 to order a print catalog for this sale.
Online Registration to Bid is Closed for this Sale. Would you like to watch the live sale?Watch Live Sale