YOMBE MATERNITY GROUP, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
- Height: 11 in (27.9 cm)
Reportedly "collected in the Sundi-Lukula chiefdom Mayumbe Teritory Zaire in 1938 - 1939"
Philippe Guimiot, Brussels
Robert Rubin, New York, acquired from the above on December 20, 1984
The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Perspectives: Angles on African Art, February 21 - April 26, 1987; additional venues:
San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego, May 23 - August 16, 1987
The Center for African Art, New York, September 18, 1987 - January 3, 1988
The Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, Alabama, January 31 - March 27, 1988
John McKesson, "La Collection de Robert Rubin", Arts d'Afrique Noire, no. 71, Autumn 1989, p. 12
Susan M. Vogel, Perspectives: Angles on African Art, New York, 1987, p. 120
Yombe maternity groups, called phemba, were used in association with women's cults. While little is known about the meaning of different phemba iconographies, two main variants 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. Cf. the maternity group in the Ethnologisches Museum - Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz (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, K-4-1-1, Dallas Museum of Art; 569, K-4-2-3, Private Collection; 570, K-4-3-1, collection of Georg Baselitz).
According to Raoul Lehuard's classification, the Rubin maternity group belongs to the Yombe sub-style of Bula-Maku or style J-12 (cf. Lehuard 1989: 525-531). 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). However, the Rubin maternity is exceptional in both quality and iconography and is without doubt the best example of this style.
The American novelist, poet and civil right activist James Baldwin (1924-1987) discusses the Rubin Yombe maternity group 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."