Treasure of the month
Roof crowning, female figure
Bandundu, DR Congo
Material: wood (Ceiba pentandra), pigment, fibres
This statue represents a mother and child. The statue is part of an architectural tradition which has almost died out completely and which we encounter amongst the Pende in DR Congo. Some chiefs fitted the ritual houses where they kept their emblems of authority with a rooftop ornament in the form of an animal or human figure.
The rooftop ornament indicated the high rank of the owner of the house. All Pende chiefs had the right to distinguish their homes with a roof-top ornament but only the most powerful could use a human (generally female) figure. The female figure was known as gangulungu. Even more important than a means of displaying the chief’s power, the female figure reminded visitors and potential wrongdoers that the chief had the power to protect his people and to watch over the village day and night.
For this he was assisted by one or multiple spirits of the dead who conferred their power on the rooftop ornament. In the past these were the spirits of the strangers and enemies who were sacrificed upon the chief’s accession to the throne. Nowadays these human offerings have been replaced by animals.
This statue, which is the symbol of motherhood, was the spiritual guard who assisted the chief in ensuring the fertility of the women, a profusion of game and an abundant harvest. She also supported the chief by defending the village against bewitchment. If the chief abused his power then the spirit could turn against him.
The female figure was generally endowed with three attributes: a necklace with a leopard tooth, a ritual axe and a cup. The leopard tooth shows how the chief was able to make short work of wrongdoers. The ritual axe symbolises the sacrifice that was made upon the chief’s accession to the throne. The cup represents the bowl from which the sacrificial blood was drunk. Before it was sold overseas, the statue’s arm, holding the cup, was generally amputated in order to avoid any uncomfortable questions.
Text based on:
Two articles by Zoë S. Strother:
- in Gustaaf Verswijver, Els De Palmenaer, Viviane Baeke en Anne-Marie Bouttiaux, Treasures from the Africa-museum (exhibitioncatalogue), 1995, p. 312.
- Zoë S. Strother, ‘Architecture against the State: The virtues of Impermanence in the Kibulu of Eastern Pende Chiefs in Central Africa’, in Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, vol. 63, n°3, 2004, pp. 272-295.
Viviane Baeke, ‘Les sculptures en ivoire des Pende. Première partie : Les ikhoko démasqués ?’, in (M. Felix éd.), White Gold, Black Hands : Ivory sculpture in Congo, vol. 2, Gemini Sun, R. D. Chine, pp. 193-307.