Lot 5
  • 5

Kongo-Yombe Maternity Figure by the Master of Kasadi, Democratic Republic of the Congo

2,000,000 - 3,000,000 USD
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  • wood
  • Height: 10 3/4 in (27.5 cm)


Private Collection, Ascona
Paolo Morigi, Lugano, acquired from the above in 1976
Murray Frum, Toronto, acquired from the above in 1978 
Lance and Roberta Entwistle, London, acquired from the above 
Daniel and Marian Malcolm, Tenafly, New Jersey, acquired from the above on November 5, 1998


The National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Vingt-cinq sculptures africaines/Twenty-Five African Sculptures from Canadian Collections, 1978
Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, African Majesty: From Grassland to Forest. The Barbara and Murray Frum Collection, May 22 - July 12, 1981
Center for African Art, New York, Africa and the Renaissance: Art in Ivory, November 16, 1988 - August 20, 1989; additional venue:
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, May 6 - August 20, 1989 
Musée Dapper, Paris, Corps Sublimes, May 19 - October 3, 1994
BBL Cultuurcentrum, Brussels, Mains de Maîtres, March 22 - June 24, 2001
Galleria d'Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Turin, Africa: Capolavori da un continente, October 2, 2003 - February 15, 2004
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Kongo: Power and Majesty, September 18, 2015 - January 3, 2016


Paolo Morigi (adv.), Arts d'Afrique Noire, no. 17, Spring 1976, p. 45
Jacqueline Fry, Vingt-cinq sculptures africaines/Twenty-Five African Sculptures from Canadian Collections, Montreal, 1978, pp. 146, 149 and 151, cat. 20
Ezio Bassani, "Due grandi artisti Yombe: il 'Maestro della maternità de Briey,'" Critica d' arte, no. 46, July - September, 1981, p. 7, fig. 3
Carlo L. Ragghianti, "La forma fa storia", Critica d' arte, July - September, 1981, p. 78, figs. 19 and 20
William Fagg, African Majesty. From Grassland to Forest: Barbara and Murray Frum Collection, Toronto, 1981, pp. 92-94, cat. 35
Irwin Hersey, "3 Major African Shows Open", Primitive Art Newsletter,  vol. 4, no. 6, June 1981, p. 3
Ezio Bassani, "Realtà e prospettive nello studio della storia delle arti classiche dell'Africa Nera," Arte in Africa, Florence, 1984, p. 10, fig. 8
Ezio Bassani and William Fagg, Africa and the Renaissance: Art in Ivory, New York, 1988, p. 205, fig. 277 
Raoul Lehuard, Arts Bakongo: les centres de style, Arnouville, 1989, vol. 2, p. 462, fig. J 1-5
Christiane Falgayrettes-Leveau, Corps sublimes, Paris 1994, p. 146
Bernard De Grunne, Mains de Maîtres: à la découverte des sculptures d'Afrique, Brussels, 2001, p. 174, cat. 47
Ezio Bassani (ed.), Africa: Capolavori da un continente, Florence, 2003, p. 262, cat. 3.79
Ezio Bassani, African Art, Milan, 2012, p. 179. no. 151
Heinrich Schweizer, Visions of Grace: 100 Masterpieces from the Collection of Daniel and Marian Malcolm, Milan, 2014, pp. 170, 172-173, cat. 67
Alissa LaGamma, Kongo: Power and Majesty, New York, 2015, pp. 188-189, fig. 126


Very good condition for an object of this age and rarity. Wear consistent with age and use within the traditional context. Cracked through both wrists of the mother. Proper right forearm cracked just below the elbow. Age crack to the front of body, extending into proper left side of the head, as visible in the catalogue illustration. Open age crack to proper right side of the integrally carved plinth, extending into the proper right thigh. General marks, nicks, scratches, abrasions, and small losses. Cavity to proper left hip, possibly from an inherent flaw in the wood. Glued chip to top of baby's head. Small insect damage throughout, more notably to baby and lower part of the figure. Minor losses to the points of the necklace pendants. Small specks of white throughout. Drill hole to the underside of the integral base. Fine aged layered dark brown patina, with remains of dark stain in areas.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note


Since the first arrival of Kongo sculpture in Europe in the 16th century, where it was soon displayed in the “Kunst- und Wunderkammern” of some of Europe’s most prestigious courts (see, for example, two Kongo ivory Oliphants in the collection of the Palazzo Pitti, Museo degli Argenti, Florence, which were inventoried in 1553, published in LaGamma 2015: 22 and 132, figs. 4 and 82; a Kongo Ivory Oliphant first inventoried in 1642, today in the Linden-Museum, Stuttgart, published in LaGamma 2015: 140, fig. 88), it has become one of the most iconic subjects of African art history, its significance being rivaled only by few others such as Baule (Côte d'Ivoire), Fang (Gabon), Benin (Nigeria), or Luba (Eastern DRC) art. Kongo art has been the subject of countless presentations at the world’s most prestigious museums, most recently the exhibition Kongo: Power and Majesty at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (September 18, 2015 – January 3, 2016). The Maternity Statue from the Malcolm Collection was one of the stars of this show.

Historical Background

According to LaGamma (2015: 17-20), “Kongo civilization and the formidable artistic legacy it engendered – without doubt among the world’s greatest – developed across a vast swathe of Central Africa over a period of two and a half millennia. Its diverse populace gave rise to a series of distinct polities that have been engaged with the West for a third of that time. In 1483, nearly a decade before Christopher Columbus reached the New World, the Portuguese explorer Diogo Cão arrived at the estuary of the mighty Congo River and continued to the coast of what is now Benguela, Angola. Also known as the Zaire River, that great tributary system, the second largest in the world, extends from the Atlantic to the highlands of northeastern Zambia. In 1506 another notable Portuguese sea captain, explorer, and cartographer, Duarte Pacheco Pereira (ca. 1460 – 1533), made use of its Kongo name Nzadi: the ‘large river which enters into the sea.’ The Portuguese subsequently came to refer to it on their maps as Rio do Congo, or the Congo River. […]

“On [his 1483] inaugural journey Cão made contact with Nzinga a Nkuwu (later João I, r. pre-1483 - 1509), the sovereign of the polity known as Kongo. The origin of the Kingdom of Kongo, whose name derives from nkongo, the Kikongo term for ‘hunter,’ a vocation identified with heroic and adventurous individuals, can be traced as far back as 1300. According to accounts documented by Jesuit missionaries, the kingdom’s founder, Lukeni lua Nimi, was one such ‘hunter.’ He was said to have departed from his father’s kingdom on Nzadi’s north bank to settle Mbanza Kongo, in present-day northern Angola, which would become the new state’s capital city. While Kongo was one of several culturally related but autonomous precolonial states in the region that include that of Loango, Mbanza Kongo has retained a degree of symbolic rather than political primacy into the twenty-first century. At the time of Cão’s landing, Kongo had been overseeing all exchanges between the coast and the interior, as well as with territories in what are today the Angolan savanna to the south and Gabon forests to the north. […]

“In the West our associations with this region of Central Africa have been shaped by two developments that subjected its peoples to unparalleled devastation: the transatlantic slave trade, which reached its height in the seventeenth century; and the annexation in 1885 of a significant section of the Congo basin by King Leopold II (r. 1865 - 1909) of Belgium, which became known as the Congo Free State. The toll exacted by each of these events was cataclysmic. From 1500 to 1850 a third of the population around the mouth of the Congo River was displaced to the New World, and at the turn of the twentieth century, the policies of the Free State had led to the decimation of the remaining population by disease, the reduction of the agricultural system to subsistence, the dismantling of existing commercial networks, and the abandonment of traditional vocations such as iron smithing and woodcarving. Despite these intense external pressures, Kongo leaders continued to manage their affairs independently for all but eighty years of the region’s history, from the late nineteenth through the mid-twentieth century. With Europe’s notorious ‘Scramble for Africa,’ the broader Kongo populace came to be subdivided into three distinct, arbitrarily drawn colonies: the southern Kongo territories were claimed by the Portuguese as part of Angola [Ngola was the name of a kingdom south of Kongo; the Portuguese corrupted the name into Angola and established a colony there in 1575]; the northern territories were incorporated by the French into Moyen Congo (Middle Congo); and central Kongo became part of Leopold’s Congo Free State and, in 1908, the Belgian Congo. These divisions have contributed to a highly uneven and fragmented historical record, as well as the inconsistent documentation of Kongo artifacts, which were collected on a massive scale by Europeans during the second half of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.”

Kongo Maternity Statuary

As Grogan (2014: 202) notes, in “the pantheon of world sculpture, few subjects have a more universal resonance than the representation of a mother and her child, the first and most basic relationship of all humanity. Maternity statuary is found in cultures throughout human history, from the earliest Western Asiatic cultures to Christian Europe, expressing not only specific narratives of histories and myths, but also the primordial purity of this universal human experience.  The Maternity subject in particular transcends cultural boundaries and allows us a special opportunity to connect with mankind across cultures and eras. 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.“

LaGamma (2015: 161) continues: “Commanding female figures of imposing stature were a major subject addressed by Kongo sculptors during the nineteenth century. A high note among these artistic attributes featuring powerful women is a corpus of what at first glance appear to be ‘mother and child’ figures. These works are striking for their conflation of iconographic elements relating leadership with motherhood, and new life with death. Given the paucity of information concerning the original patronage and use of these works, our understanding of their significance is highly circumscribed. Scrutiny of the sculptures makes evident that their authors insightfully mined the quintessential human relationship as metaphor for the dynamics of power between this world and that of the ancestors; between clan founders and their descendants; and between mothers and their progeny. This imagery draws on the profound connection of a mother and her dependent infant as a manifesto of the Kongo idea of mbongo bantu, or ‘wealth in people.’ […]” And LaGamma (ibid.: 183) adds: “Among the Yombe of the Chiloango River basin, ‘Mpemba’ is the mother and founder of the clan. A distinctive coiffure that is her prerogative is known as ‘mphemba.’ Accordingly, the seated female might be understood as the clan generatrix and the second figure representing her descendants. The terms phemba and pfemba are used in relation to both maternity figures from the Mayombe region and an associated packet of potent matter used in Lemba initiation. What may, on a visual basis, appear as a dead infant being mourned by its mother might instead be a simbi, or spirit child from the ancestral realm. Such representations may have been conceived to conflate the imperative of childbearing with the concerns of local leadership to augment kin groups through procreation and political alliances.”

The Master of Kasadi

In the study of the history of African art, the notion of the individual artist was not introduced until 1935 when Hans Himmelheber identified nineteen artists from Ivory Coast in his groundbreaking Negerkünstler (Negro Artists). Two years later, the Belgian art historian Frans Olbrechts identified a body of work created by “The Master of the Long Face of Buli,” referring to a now famous Hemba sculptor active in the 19th century. Subsequently, the identification of authorship and workshops has become an increasingly important focus of African art history. Following the methodologies established in ancient Greek and Medieval art history, the identification of an artist’s body of work is based on stylistic and contextual evidence, and often names of convenience are used as a result of the ignorance of the artist's actual name.

The magnificent maternity figure from the Malcolm Collection is the work of an artist whom Western art historians have named the Master of Kasadi after the village in which two of his works, today in the Musée Royal de l’Afrique Centrale, Tervuren, were first collected. The known corpus of sculptures by this hand includes six maternity figures (all published in Lehuard 1989: 459–465, figs. J 1-1-1 –J 1-1-6; as well as LaGamma 2015: 176-191, figs. 120, 123-127): one in the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. (inv. no. "83.3.6"); a second in the Musée Royal de l’Afrique Centrale, Tervuren, which was collected before 1913 (inv. no. "RG 24.662"); a third in the Musée Royal de l’Afrique Centrale, Tervuren, which was collected before 1937 by the Belgian missionary Father Leo Bittremieux, who lived among the Yombe (inv. no. "RG 37.964"); a fourth in the collection of Laura and James J. Ross, New York, first documented in 1898 and previously in the collections of Baudouin de Grunne and François Pinault; a fifth in a German private collection; and a sixth, the maternity figure from the Malcolm Collection, the present lot.

The œuvre by the Master of Kasadi also includes four masks, three of which are in the Musée Royal de l’Afrique Centrale, Tervuren (inv. nos. "RG 37.966", "RG 43.573" and "RG 67.6342") and one in a private collection (all published in Lehuard 1989: 783, 785–786, figs. 5.1.1–5.1.4). Based on the collecting history of the figure in the Ross Collection, which is first documented in 1898, we can presume that the Master of Kasadi was active in the nineteenth century.

According to LaGamma (2015: 185), “[…] Bittremieux reported that the seated female figure he had acquired in Kasadi [one of the two figures at the Tervuren museum] had been the instrument of an expert diagnostician, or nganga diphomba, charged with bringing hidden matters to light.” The Malcolm maternity, one of the masterpieces of the corpus, by virtue of her noble proportions, commanding presence and stern facial expression, is undoubtedly a consummate intermediary between the natural and supernatural worlds.