Pfemba: A maternity figure
This pfemba, as such maternity figures are called, is the epitome of feminine beauty, composure, and intense concentration. Her upswept miterlike hairstyle or hat, which was worn by both men and women, frames her face with its carefully composed expression. Her imported glass eyes “see” beyond this world. Beautifying features include filed teeth and scarification patterns on her neck, back, and shoulders. In real life, raised scars are made by rubbing a medicinal substance into superficial cuts in the skin so they heal as smooth, shiny scars with definite shapes. This was done to make women physically more attractive and to heighten sexual pleasure. The kitanda string the pfemba wears above her breasts signifies poise and order.
Yombe sculptures are generally rendered in a seminaturalistic style with great care given to depicting cultural details. Yombe maternity figures conventionally depict a woman posed cross-legged seated on a plinth with an infant lying on her lap. They are believed to have been used in the rituals of a women’s fertility cult established by a distinguished midwife on the Loango coast.
Camwood paste originally coated the pfemba. Its reddish color signified transitional conditions, such as being born or passing into the afterlife. The pfemba leans forward, indicating that she is strong but flexible like a palm tree and is able to see through glass-covered eyes or “through water to the spirit world.” The figure depicts a female chief, a midwife, or a healer who will accomplish whatever is required of her.
Whether the infant on this pfemba sculpture is dead or alive is controversial. Some infants are shown nursing or with flexed legs, a clear indication of vitality, while others lie still on their mothers’ laps with their stiff legs outstretched. The mother’s right hand on the Dallas sculpture covers the child’s legs, making it impossible to determine the infant’s condition.
Roslyn A. Walker, The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), 114.