Comb with seated figure

Chokwe peoples or Lwena peoples
late 19th or early 20th century
more object details

General Description

Artists use great skill and imagination when fashioning African combs in materials such as wood, bone, or ivory. The spines, or handles, are decorated with carved motifs and precious metals, including locally mined gold and imported brass. The earliest extant African combs were found in ancient Egyptian tombs and are thousands of years old. Several combs excavated at Dawu in Ghana date to the 17th century, which also corresponds to the earliest European accounts of African combs. Most wooden combs that have survived tropical climate conditions date from the 19th century.

This comb is decorated with a seated figure of indeterminate gender carved in full relief. The figure's elbows rest on its knees in an attitude of contemplation. Although the comb may have originated among either the Chokwe or Lwena peoples, the hairstyle is similar to those on Lwena face masks representing females.

Combs were emblems of status among the Chokwe peoples. Those made of wood or ivory with spines decorated with carved figures and abstract patterns were more valuable than unadorned wooden combs or those made from cane or wires. A woman usually acquired sculpted combs as gifts from family, male admirers, or her husband to mark important events in the life cycle. Decorated Chokwe combs were heirlooms handed down from generation to generation in the belief that the spirit of the original owner inhabited the object.

Adapted from

  • Roslyn A. Walker, Label text, Arts of Africa, 2015.

  • Roslyn A. Walker, The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), 232-235.