The present figure belongs to the rare and iconic group of sculptures created by the Mbole people of the northeastern Congo region known as ofika statues. Taking the form of a suspended human, usually male, these sculptures are celebrated for their ingenious abstraction and superb sculptural quality. With remarkable formal novelty, the human form is described in a mysterious, ethereal posture, without a means of standing or resting, as if floating in space and time. The arresting harmonious beauty of the face, dominated by geometric forms, conveys a timeless melancholy, a state of consciousness between waking and sleep, or perhaps between life and death.
Inhabiting the equatorial rainforest along the banks of the Lomami River, a tributary of the Congo, in the present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Mbole are part of the greater Mongo language group. A cluster of associated cultures in the northeastern part of the Congo River basin includes the neighboring Lengola, Metoko, Yela, Kumu, Jonga, and Lega. Although a relatively small people, Mbole art is widely known for its exploration of highly abstract forms in figural sculpture, with the large-scale ofika statues as the apex of their artistic tradition.
The mysterious ofika statues were created for use within the Mbole lilwa association, a socio-religious system which, like the bwami association among the Lega, served educational, judicial, political, economic, and ritual functions. The cultural context and the iconography of the ofika sculptures has been interpereted in various, sometimes contradictory ways. According to Schweizer (2014: 242), the “meaning of the Malcolm figure is somewhat obstructed by confusing information in the literature regarding Mbole statuary in general. The latter is commonly stereotyped as representing 'ritually executed persons' or 'hanged criminals' (Mack in Phillips 1995: 306; Neyt 1981: 30; Sieber and Walker 1987: 99). This interpretation apparently stems from a misunderstood sentence in the second volume of Daniel Biebuyck’s The Arts of Zaire. Quoting Kalala Nkudi (1979), Biebuyck mentions 'figurines representing ritual victims and condemned persons' which were shown to young initiates by lilwa leaders (Biebuyck 1986: 242). Further on in his discussion of the lilwa, Biebuyck first repeats this information and then elaborates on it further, speaking synonymously of 'the famed polychrome ofika statues' and 'figurines.' (Biebuyck 1986: 243). This ambiguous discussion of Mbole figures seems to have been misunderstood by the vast majority of later authors who, quoting the passage in Biebuyck, refer to Mbole figures in a generalizing manner as 'ofika statues' and renderings of 'persons hanged for transgressions' regardless of their scale and iconography.”
Schweizer (loc. cit.) suggests that “For a better understanding of Mbole figures it is helpful to re-introduce two of Biebuyck’s other statements pertaining to the lilwa which are usually ignored by those authors who reduce Mbole statuary to persons hanged for transgression: ‘On the death of a kanga [diviner], the corpse is suspended from a pole in his house and the liquids are collected before he is buried in a termitaria…’ and ‘When a yeni [highest ranking initiate of the lilwa] is moribund, he is isolated by his aides in the forest and killed. After the corpse is exposed in a giant tree, his successor is initiated’ (Biebuyck 1986: 242). Both statements hint to different burial practices for high ranking lilwa members that involved suspension of the corpse.”
Schweizer continues (loc. cit.): “With regard to their iconography, several fundamental differences delineate two main types [of Mbole ofika figures]: hanging and standing figures. The hanging figures category, including the Malcolm figure, consists of at least fifteen figures showing the body with slightly bent knees, and downward pointing feet. Some of these figures, for example the one in the British Museum, London [inv. no. "Af1954,+23.1246"], have extremely elongated bodies with emaciated limbs and appear to be fairly naturalistic representations of a hanging, decomposing corpse. However, as in the Malcolm figure, the heads of these statues are always upright, looking forward with a serene yet animated expression. Based on the power of funerary rites to enable the transformation of the deceased into a spirit being, it seems plausible to interpret the Malcolm figure as the image of a deceased ancestor at the moment of his rebirth into a spirit.”
Placement of the Malcolm Ofika Figure
Major Mbole ofika figures are extremely rare, and few remain in private hands. Most of the notable examples are found in public institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the British Museum, London; the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum für Völkerkunde, Cologne; the American Museum of Natural History, New York; The Fowler Museum at UCLA, Los Angeles; the Musée Royal de l'Afrique Central, Tervuren, and the Etnografisch Museum, Antwerp. Several of these have early 20th century collecting dates, including a group in Antwerp which was acquired in 1920 from the dealer Henry Pareyn. Most closely related to the Malcolm figure is the example in the Fowler Museum (inv. no. “X65.7486”), which was acquired by Sir Henry Wellcome before his death in 1936.
Along with the example from the Wellcome collection, the Malcolm Mbole ofika figure is distinct in its fleshy, rounded design, depicting a figure which is clearly not a corpse but rather an incarnate being in a state between the living world and the world of spirits. In its superb quality, its poetically meditative expression, and its ingenious abstraction of the human form, the Malcolm Mbole ofika figure is a masterpiece of Mbole sculpture, and one of the finest artworks from the Congo to remain in private hands.
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