Hemba , Objet art of the ethnic Hemba - African-art.net
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Hemba

The style of the Hemba has only recently been identified as such. Up until recently, Hemba sculptures were attributed to the Luba. It was only during the 1960’s when important pieces arrived from the east of Haut- Zaire that these were identified by experts as being Hemba works.

Hemba statues are mainly masculine and express symmetry, a static character and perfect balance. These are statues of naked men, but where the coiffures, outfits, tattoos and other prestigious emblems are of great importance. The head is usually oval with half closed eyes and a stylized beard. The head is crowned with a very sophisticated headdress that is often in the form of a cross.

Different Hemba sub styles have developed amidst the numerous chieftaincies that form the Hemba ethnic group.

Social Organisation of the Hemba

The social organisation of the Hemba is characterized by a system of clans that group together several families with a common ancestor. Each clan learns the history of its migrations, conquests and alliances as well as complying with a certain number of taboos of which the most important concern food. Clans are independent of each other, and one clan can constitute an entire village.

The Hemba are farmers and hunters.

The Hemba worship the cult of the ancestors in order to commemorate the great chiefs, but also to reinforce the power of the current clan chiefs. Each head of a clan has total and unquestionable authority over the members of his clan and owns several statues of ancestors, kept either in his own hut, or in a slightly smaller funerary hut. When a chief worships the cult of the ancestors in front of the members of his clan, he talks with the ancestor evoking his glories and asking for his kindness. Afterwards, the chief sacrifices a chicken, sometimes by hitting it on the ground, or sometimes against the effigy of the ancestor, contributing in this way to its thick patina. The rite ends in a meal of manioc flour and chicken.

Owning several ancestor statues is a sign of power for the chief of the clan. He has independence over his territory, makes justice and receives taxes. The cult of the ancestors impregnates all areas of life in society, political, social and religious.

The Hemba: Masculine Statues Tied to the Ancestral Cult

Hemba statues are mainly masculine and express symmetry, a static character and perfect balance. These are statues of naked men, but where the coiffure, outfits, tattoos and other prestigious emblems are of great importance. The head is usually oval with half closed eyes and a stylized beard. The head is crowned with a very sophisticated headdress that is often in the form of a cross. The majority wear a loincloth hence the careful execution of the lower limbs. The arms and forearms are pulled in onto the stomach, the legs are parallel and bent, and the bust is straight. Some statues of ancestors indicate their status by the addition of bracelets, belts, scarification marks or spears. The patina is shiny.

Hemba statues represent naked men for whom the coiffures, outfits, tattoos and other prestigious emblems hold great importance. These statues, always masculine, often very large, are all representations of ancestors and therefore linked to their cult.

Amongst the different Hemba styles it can be noted that:

  • The classical southern Niembo style which stands out by the quality of its craftsmanship and aesthetics. With a surprising economy of means the sculptors created bodies with rhythmic and elegant forms. The face is perfect, the expression serene and thoughtful. These statues that appear to communicate with the afterlife are not weighed down by superfluous aesthetic detail. The coiffure, has the shape of a cross, reproducing the traditional plaits that crossed over at the back of the head. A large rounded forehead is crowned by a diadem made up of grooves. A short beard with a grooved aspect follows the line of the face and continues under the chin. The eyes are downward looking, the nose is long and slightly hooked, and the mouth has a harsh expression.
  • The Niembo style with ringed neck
  • The plaited style
  • The ‘Kusu’ style with  a quadrilobed coiffure on the top of the head
  • The ‘Buli’ style, characterized by a very elongated face with a poignant expression. The body is more angular than the other styles. The head is especially large and is counterbalanced by an equally large base. Around fifteen works are known to have these characteristics and were made by the same artist.

Among these different styles, statues of ancestral figures, neck rests and caryatid stools can be found.

The Hemba also make magical statuettes. Notably, a Janus statue called Kajeba, where the neck is shared and the two torsos are joined together, representing on one side a man and on the other a woman. At the top of the two heads is a cup containing magical ingredients. This statue must not be anywhere near women or children. It must not be touched by anyone and must be wrapped in a thick layer of grass in order to be moved. This statue, as well as other ancestral statues, is handed over to each new chief. A magical statue, it intervenes in the case of bad luck, illness, for fertility and the cult of the ancestors. It is the symbol of the ancestors, of their vital force, of the earth, the harvest and game, and sacrifices are made to it to obtain its grace. Only one Kajeba statue is owned by each clan.

To give justice, or direct the village meetings, the clan chiefs often sit on feminine caryatid stools.

Staffs are the emblem of family heads or the chief of the village. The most beautiful staffs have a handle crowned with geometric motifs and a small sculpted head.

The Hemba also possess ape-like masks with truly astonishing faces.  This type of mask is characterized by a huge prognathic mouth that dominates the rest of the head and that is decorated with pointed grooves. The top of the face, smaller than the jaw, is made up of two oblique eyes that take up a large part of the face, and a narrow rounded tube shaped nose going down to the mouth.

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