Caryatid stools are amongst the highlights that resulted from the expansion of the Luba kingdom. When King Lunga Sungu (1780-1810) expanded his kingdom towards the east, pushing out the established tribes along the Luvua River, he wanted to honor Sopola, the Tumbwe prince, by offering him two important rituals. The first was the gift of an eternal flame, which would never be extinguished, and the second, the title of ‘Kipona mya Sopola’, meaning the throne of Sopola. This title highlights the importance of the present stool, which depicts a kneeling woman supporting the throne with her elevated hands, a symbol of the matrilineal royal house of the eastern Luba.
Under the reign of King Kumwimbe Ngombe (1810-1840), Prince Buki was exiled to the Hemba country, in the northern stretches of the kingdom. This Vassal-King also received a sacred flame which gave him the status of a symbolic descendant. Buki appropriated royal signs and bestowed symbols of prestige upon local chiefs in his territory who in turn became his vassals. Prince Buki expanded his kingdom around the city of Kabalo, towards the interior of the Songye country in west, and towards the Tabwa territory in the east. The present Hemba stool was produced after this turn of events. Most sculpture workshops were located around Mbulula, in the southern part of Hemba territory.
Carved from a moderately heavy wood with a reddish sheen, this caryatid stool was probably made from Chlorophora excelsa, also known as iroko. It depicts two figures, a chief and his spouse, standing back to back. The two figures are sculpted in isometry, and with the same morphological and stylistic traits. Some of the more meaningful differences, evidenced by particular traditions, are interesting from a historical perspective, because they reflect the role and function of each stool in daily life at the end of the nineteenth century.
The chief holds two emblems of authority in his hands. His face is ovoid-shaped, with rectilinear cheeks, which together with the chin, form a rounded triangle.
The full and rounded forehead is bare until the crown of the head, which is topped by a quatrefoil cruciform diadem. The diadem is decorated with small juxtaposed rectangles and the coiffure extends down the back of the head, behind a cylindrical component that connects the figure to the seat of the stool. The high forehead is a sign of wisdom and authority.
The eye sockets of the figure are sculpted with restraint, in a circular arc, with protruding eyebrows and slightly open almond-shaped eyes. The straight and elongated nose lengthens the facial plane. The lips are plump and naturalistic, framing a mouth that is slightly open. The fine outline of a beard stretches from ear to ear in the form of small diamond shapes arranged in a curved line running along the chin. Beneath the cylindrical neck and the shoulders which curve around it, the body has a slight twist, a form that highlights the masculine torso and bent arms. The fingers of each hand are sculpted to the tips of the nails. In his right hand, the chief holds a curved prestige knife of sickle form, with its blade facing upwards. In his left hand he holds a prestige staff, the top section of which is decorated with large triangles containing parallel grooves. The abdomen of the figure is more voluminous around the navel, which is depicted by a protruding circular point. The legs of the figure are stocky and rest upon racket shaped feet, which stand in turn on a gently sloping circular base.
As for the woman, she is the principal wife of the chief and like other Luba royalty, possesses the power to act as an intermediary between living beings, and spirits of the natural world and of the realm of the ancestors. The position of her thin and taut fingers recalls the technique used by the Buli workshop, which was located not far from the workshop that created the present stool.
The scarification marks on the female body are an authentic representation of this practice in the Hemba cultural tradition. Her diadem, eye sockets, and the top of the bridge of her nose are connected by semi-circular bands, diamond shapes, and curved lines. Beneath her pear-shaped breasts, sculpted motifs adorn her belly, a sign of life and fecundity. Is it not said among the Luba that ‘the navel is the key to the world’? Beneath the sex, there are keloids, horizontal scarifications which were created by rubbing soot and ash into the scars. These two main characteristics – the position of the arms and the scarification of the body – are highly significant and underline, in this fine caryatid stool, the sacred function of the female figure, the principal wife of the local chief.
The craftsmanship of the artist who made this sculpture from a single block of wood should not be overlooked. The work is outstanding in quality, proportion, and isometry. For instance, the distance between the top of the seat and the shoulders is the same as that between the shoulders and the navel, and in turn, between the navel and the bottom of the base. Other isometries can be seen in the position of the female figure’s arms, which form a square enclosed at the top by the seat. The sculptor has crafted a work in which different elements form a beautiful ensemble.
A Nkuvu notable, Mwana Kitenge, who resided in Sola, remarked that caryatid stools carved from a single piece of wood were not the only traditional seats. Amongst the Hemba, the people of the Yambula chiefdom usually sat on a beam of wood measuring approximately 50 by 20 cm. Notables alone had the right to use mats, five of which would be stacked one on top of the other. Caryatid stools, seen as emblems of authority, were used by heads of households and of villages to render judgment in debates and questions of justice. The presence of the female could evoke the chief’s wife or matriarchal ascendancy (see de Strycker & Neyt, Approche des arts hemba, 1975, pp. 40-42).
Workshop, Style, and Dating
De Strycker and I published the present stool in 1975 in the first publication announcing the European discovery of Hemba art. At the time, this work was classified as southern Niembo style, made in Mbulula. However, the more angular style of the present figures, particularly evident in their faces, helps to locate this tradition in the western fringes of the nuclear center of the Hemba territory, where the Muhona-Nkuvu lived. This workshop was not associated with the Niembo of the Luika region, who had the habit of sculpting three circular grooves under the seat of their caryatid stools. The origin of the present stool is therefore relatively precise: west of Mbulula, to the north of Kongolo, and below the course of the Luika River. The workshop is situated in the Sola region, and the present stool dates to the end of the 19th or beginning of the 20th century.
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