Yombe maternity figure - Pfemba or Phemba
Yombe maternity figure - Phemba
12" tall - wood, metal tack
Ex East Coast Private Collection

An excellent figure stylistically in my opinion. The face on this figure is beautiful and has extraordinary character to it and a wonderful profile.
I like the general presence of the figuree, the way the legs are crossed, the lines of the face, the proportions of the body, I just think that overall it is a
very aesthetically pleasing example.

This figure is most probably an example of a type of sculpture called pfemba (or phemba) that is related to a women's cult concerned with enhancing
fertility and the treatment of infertility. The Kikongo word phemba "denotes 'the one who gives children in-potentia.' A phemba child is a magically
conceived nkisi child, a fragile emissary of the spirit world" (Janzen 1977:88). Oral tradition holds that the pfemba cult was established by a famous
midwife. The very different styles of the  sculptures illustrate regional and even personal variations on the same theme.

The figure depicted here would have held a high rank in society, as testified by her cross-legged pose on a pedestal and her many body adornments.
The chiseled teeth, the firm breasts, the Mpu on the head and especially the raised scarification marks indicate ideals of beauty and perfection. Meant to
stimulate sexual pleasure, the scars were considered both beautiful and erotic. The double bracelets around her upper arms imitate protective charms
called nsunga; made of plaited or braided raffia fibers, they are worn by religious experts and by ill people as a cure.

During their ritual use, the surfaces of these figures were rubbed with a reddish mixture of oil and camwood powder, both a cosmetic and a sign of
mediation. It is no coincidence that in Yombe thought the color red indicates transitional conditions such as death and birth. The fact that some
mother-and-child figures hold or carry what appears to be a dead baby alludes to the close interrelationship in Kongo beliefs between the spirit world and
the world of the living. It has been suggested that the figures were thoroughly cleaned and polished after their use by their original caretakers. The
resinous material on many examples in Western collections seems to have been applied not by the people who made and used them but by their first
Western owners.
References: South of the Sahara
An example of the hat,
called "mpu", that is seen in
the figure. This hat is in the
collection of the
Examples of scarification patterns on a Yombe woman
CLICK HERE to go to my Phemba figures example page

There are a lot of examples of varied styles for reference purposes and there are a LOT of examples on this page