Mother and Child (Primary Title)

Unknown (Artist)

ca. 19th century
Kongo, Vili
Wood, glass, paint, kaolin, camwood powder
Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola
Overall: 19 1/2 × 7 × 6 in. (49.53 × 17.78 × 15.24 cm)

1-In this poignant sculpture, it is easy to see a mother’s concern for her sick baby in her solemn expression and reverent, kneeling posture. Visual cues in the image of the child tell us that his survival is not assured. He turns away from his mother’s breast and clutches his stomach, symbolic gestures indicating illness. The statue is an nkisi, or power figure, intended for use in ritual. Cavities in the mother’s back and head would have been filled with special healing substances to give the statue the supernatural power to reveal the source of the child’s illness and thus determine how to cure him.

This figure is from a subgroup of Kongo culture, the Vili, who inhabit coastal areas of Gabon and the Republic of the Congo.

2-According to the Kongo cosmogram, this stage of life, known as LUVEMBA, refers to setting or, death and transformation.

The dikenga diagram of the life cycle is carved on the mother’s shoulders and abdomen. The statue depicts a crisis, for the child is ill. With his life at a crossroads, the focus is on the tension between life and death. This is indicated by the diagram on the mother’s abdomen, where additional diamonds, emphasize sunrise and sunset, stressing KALUNGA, the dividing line between the worlds of the living and the dead.

Adolph D. and Wilkins C. Williams Fund
Vanitas: Through the Ages in the Permanent Collections, Richmond: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. April 2000.

Spirit of the Motherland, Roanoke: Museum of Western Virginia, September 1995- January 1996; Peninsula Fine Arts Center, Newport News, January- May 1996.
Image released via Creative Commons CC-BY-NC

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