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Commemorative Portrait of a Chief (Singiti)
19th–early 20th century
Purchase, Jane and Gerald Katcher, Lila Acheson Wallace, Daniel and Marian Malcolm, Hamilton E. James, Anonymous and Steven Kossak Gifts, 2015
2015.119
Episode 1 / 2016
First Look

The representation is striking for its synthesis of tranquility and aliveness..."

Through the inspired sculptural creations of master carvers, the deceased leaders of Hemba chiefdoms remained vitally present to their successors until the mid-twentieth century. This work belongs to that corpus of visual tributes to princely subjects from communities situated across the vast grass plains extending from the right bank of the Upper Zaire River to a branch of the Luika. Originally enshrined within darkened ancestral mausoleums positioned centrally within the community, where they were cared for by its living leadership, these profoundly contemplative figures signify their preoccupation with concerns of transcendent significance. Among the paradoxes of this artistic genre is that, despite the lengths to which Hemba masters strove to produce rarefied and nuanced likenesses, their achievements were generally removed from the line of vision of ordinary mortals. Instead, the originally intended audience for their idealized perfection was otherworldly.

The authors of Hemba ancestor figures typically focused on the bodily passages of the head and torso, whose respective epicenters are the eyes and navel. This male figure stands with hands held at either side. The gaze was privileged among all other senses as the principal means for visually acquiring knowledge, or ubatizha, a means of learning in-depth about a person, thing, or event through observation. This princely figure's eyes are closed and his expression deeply contemplative. The eyes are raised, semi-circular forms below the arc of the brow, the nose narrow at the bridge with flared nostrils; the semi-circular form of the raised lips is echoed by the beard that extends around the contour of the chin. While highly symmetrical, the head is turned ever so slightly. The summit of the head is crowned by an elaborate openwork coiffure. Such highly labor-intensive constructions reflected the wearer's ethnicity and elevated rank. The sensitivity of the face contrasts with the squared abstraction of the hands and abbreviated legs. In profile, the arms with bent elbows read as a zigzag form. The elegant volumetric torso is squared in the area of the chest, narrows at the waist, and terminates in the full, rounded convex form of the stomach. At either side of the navel are cicatrization markings. The umbilicus is emphasized for its importance as the line of connection between family members. On the reverse side, the shoulder blades are articulated. The representation is striking for its synthesis of tranquility and aliveness.

Alisa LaGamma
Ceil and Michael E. Pulitzer Curator in Charge
Department of Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas
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