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Hemba


Location: SE Democratic Rep of Congo
Population: Estimated 80,000

Arts: The Hemba have produced some of the finest carvings to come out of West Africa. Their art has been heavily influenced by their larger and more famous neighbors, the Luba. In fact, in the last quarter of a century many "Luba" masterpieces have had to be reclassified as Hemba, though there continues to be confusion and extensive scholarly debate over individual pieces. Generalizations are always risky, but it can be said with relative certainty that male statues are more common among the Hemba than among the Luba, whose primary artisitic thrust has been a respectful portrayal of the female form. The types of carvings that the Hemba produce also parallel those of the Luba, and includes major statues dedicated to important ancestors, and a multitude of small but stunning pieces like stools, neckrests and staffs. Both groups produce relatively few masks, with the most familiar Hemba mask being the monkey-faced "soko."

Perhaps the most famous of Hemba statues are the large ancestor figures known as "Singiti." These can be quite tall, up to 40 inches. They are generally male, with enlarged heads and hands resting on an often distended abdomen. There is usually an impressive beard as well as a distinctive backswept hairdo finished off in the shape of a cross. The patina is often warm and lush. These are important village possessions, and are kept in special shrines which are guarded by the "Fumu Mwalo," or chief of the clan. He alone can present the statues during important rituals, during which he communicates with the ancestors, using the singiti as intermediaries. Much more rare than the singiti are the impressive warrior figures holding weapons, and these are among the most sought-after of all West African statues. They are treated with the utmost respect by the chief, and when displayed will often receive offerings of blood from sacrificed animals. This produces a heavy, encrusted patina over time, adding to their beauty and desireability. In addition to the ancestor statues, the Hemba have produced many smaller and utilitarian objects of great beauty. Again, these are often difficult to distinguish from similar Luba pieces. Neckrests, stools, small amulets, and rattles predominate. The use of masks among the Hemba is thought to be rare, with only the charming, simian-style "soko" masks easily identified. There are also a few field-collected examples of serenely beautiful human-faced masks, but these are extremely rare, and like the "soko," their meaning is obscure. The art of the Hemba is enormously significant, if not completely unique, and despite scholarly progress, still the subject of controversy among experts.

History: The modern-day Hemba moved into their current location along the Lualaba River from the east during the 18th century, though there is evidence of their presence in the region as early as the 16th century. They initially migrated into the Congo from what is today Tanzania. Particularly for the Hemba living in the southern portions of their territory, they became increasingly dominated by the vast Luba Empire, which had been established for centuries. The influence of the Luba was all-inclusive, and affected not only the social and ritual lives of the Hemba, but also the style and forms of art that they produced. Later, in the 19th century, the region was infiltrated by Arabs as well as colonial explorers from Belgium, who established a vast colony known as the Belgian Congo.

 

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