Democratic Republic of Congo.
Private USA Estate Collection
Maternity figures are among the most renown in African art because of their easily recognizable theme, their classical form and their fine workmanship.
Kongo Maternity figurines (pfemba) are thought to have first been used in rituals addressing women's infertility, and were decorated in a red paste. In Kongo iconology, the colour red symbolizes transitional phases such as birth and death, as well as ritual practices. The figures' mitred hairstyles are a reminder of a fashion once popular among Mayombe men and women; the knitted bonnet or mpu suggests high rank. Women from this region often had intricate patterns of scarification on their bodies, made by rubbing substances into incisions in the skin. These keloid tattoos increased a woman's sexual appeal — without scarifications a woman might be mocked because she was "as slippery as a fish." Filed teeth also reflect the Kongo ideal of female beauty.
This maternity figure is an icon of Kongo art because of the easily recognizable theme, the classical form and excellent craftsmanship. Known as pfemba, it supersedes a simple representation of maternity theme among the Kongo. It is more of a statement of the spiritual power supporting society, the need for fertility and the promise of future generations. Closely associated with mpemba, a women's cult said to have been founded by a famous midwife concerned with the treatment of infertility, pfemba are thought to have first been used in rituals addressing women's infertility.
The figure is seated cross legged, nursing an infant, atop a small base. This pose conveys the prestige of high political and social status, as do a number of other details. Among the Mayombe, scarification was considered erotic and beautiful; it marked physical maturity and assured conception. Mayombe men and women from this region often had intricate patterns of scarification on their bodies, made by rubbing substances into incisions in the skin. These keloid tattoos increased a woman's sexual appeal. In fact, without scarifications, a woman might be mocked as being "slippery as a fish." The chest cord serves to accentuate her breasts. The chiseled teeth were also an ideal of female beauty among the Kongo. It is depicted wearing a close-fitting hat, traditionally made of knotted raffia or pineapple leaf fiber. The knitted bonnet or mpu suggests high rank. This type of cap was worn by chiefs at the time of their inauguration and by noblewomen who would give birth to future rulers. Kongo societies trace their descent through the female line of ancestors, and pfemba.