Standing female figure (mbem)

Yanzi peoples
late 19th–early 20th century
more object details

General Description

The Yanzi employ a variety of sculpted figures in rituals to assure their well-being. A series of figures called mbem were used in specific situations to protect against disease, reverse infertility that could ironically be caused by mbem, or identify wrongdoers. Some mbem were used to reinforce the authority of the head of an extended family or cause a woman to become sterile if she lied about an adulterous relationship under oath before an mbem. Grandmothers, in addition to chiefs and male heads of extended families, were entitled to own mbem to reinforce their authority over the women in their families.

Mbem figures have few realistic physiological details. The hands and feet of this small female figure, for example, are faceted geometric forms. Diagonal striations incised on her face replicate scarification that was in fashion when the statue was carved.

The upward thrust of her hairstyle opposes the V-shaped ears, which, in turn, oppose the larger V-shaped arms and shoulders. Traces of red camwood paste indicate that a ritual specialist consecrated the mbem. When in use, it was probably dressed in a raffia cloth, adorned with a necklace, and smelled of tobacco.

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), 156-157.