Kneeling female figure with bowl and child

Kongo peoples, Yombe group
late 19th or early 20th century
more object details

General Description

This memorial figure represents an important woman whose name has since been lost. She wears an upswept hairstyle or royal headdress, has filed teeth, and wears no fewer than five bracelets on her left arm, all indications of an extraordinary, spiritually imbued woman, perhaps a great healer and protector of children. The white kaolin covering her body is an important ingredient in ritual medicines and symbolizes the spirit world; it refers to purity and moral correctness.

Kneeling, she leans forward in an attitude of respect while balancing a male child on her foot. She supports the back of the child with her left hand while her right one rest on top of a pot of spiritually charged medicine that can cure illness or resolve social conflict. When chiefs take office, they are anointed with white or yellow clay called kaolin, which is kept in a pot. These pots recall the original pot of kaolin sent from the capital of the kingdom of Kongo to anoint the traditional chiefs of the earth. Therefore, in addition to its cosmic significance, this figure honors and remembers an important woman through whom a great lineage or clan can claim the right to rule and to bury their dead in the land.

Memorial figures provided a means of contact between descendants and their ancestors. When in need of extraordinary spiritual assistance, individuals or families sought aid from their ancestors. Figures like this one were paired with a sculpture of a distinguished male ancestor and enshrined in three-sided houses built above the graves in the cemetery. Yombe cemeteries were located near the entrance to the village.

Adapted from

  • Roslyn A. Walker, Label text, Arts of Africa, 2015.
  • Roslyn A. Walker, Label text, Arts of Africa, 2006.
  • Ramona Austin, "Female Shrine Figure (bitumba) with ritual pot and child" in_ Dallas Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection,_ ed. Suzanne Kotz (Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Art, 1997), 155.