A Yao monumental initiation figure
Lot 2615
A rare and superb Yao monumental initiation figure
height 63 1/2in
Sold for US$ 36,000 inc. premium

Fine African and Oceanic Art

13 Nov 2007, 13:00 EST

New York

Lot Details
A Yao monumental initiation figure
A rare and superb Yao monumental initiation figure
Malawi, of massive and spectacular form, carved in extremely dense hardwood, fully pigmented with remains of human hair to the pubic region, and multiple layers of pigmentation on the face. The mouth filled with bovine (?) teeth.
height 63 1/2in


  • Provenance:
    From an old Scottish Missionary collection

    Governors State University, IL, 2003
    Krannert Art Museum, IL, 2003
    Belger Art Foundation/University of Missouri-Kansas City, MO, 2004
    Tall Grass Art Association, IL, 2005

    Bourgeois and Rodolitz, REMNANTS OF RITUAL: SELECTIONS FROM THE GELBARD COLLECTION OF AFRICAN ART, Ethnos, New York, 2003, p.56, fig.117

    Secret age-grade initiation ceremonies (unyago, chisungu) were a key feature of traditional education. Both boys and girls underwent a First Initiation as they approached puberty. The Initiation Master (or Mistress) made all the arrangements, while the patrons (or patronesses) were in charge of the practical training. The particulars of these ceremonies differed widely but all had the same general function—to prepare youths for the responsibilities of adulthood. Tangible objects, including wooden and clay figurines, masks and paintings, were used to impress important cultural information onto the young. These objects were normally destroyed at the close of the initiation ‘school’, but there is some indication that certain rare wooden figures were stowed away in caves and reused.

    The Gelbard figure seems to represent a stylized initiate undergoing one of the most personal and intense of these initiations—the Initiation of First Conception (chitumbu, or litiwo). This figure was possibly employed, perhaps several times a year, to tangibly inculcate social mores, responsibilities and all information needed to prepare the young woman for the mysteries of birth. The sculpture effectively depicts an initiate in a state of social distancing.

    There are indisputable stylistic similarities between the Gelbard figure, and a figure collected in 1909 from the Lake Malawi region, now owned by the British Museum and illustrated in Holy (Holy:1967, fig.111). The Gelbard figure is very heavy (68 lbs.), life-size (62.5”), and is clearly not a direct copy of the smaller (36”) British Museum piece. The encircled breasts are more flaccid; the navel is handled differently; the hands are flat and paddle-like, but turned outward; the eyes are deep, boldly chiseled rectangles; the teeth (buffalo ?) are set only in the upper jaw; no hair is depicted on the Gelbard figure. There is a little evidence of burning or pyro-engraving as there is on the British Museum work. In fact, the wood on the Gelbard piece has a deep reddish tone.

    The face is encrusted with layers of various substances, the last being a thick coat of white enamel paint which, perhaps because it could not be absorbed by the wood, has ‘crawled’ heavily as it dried. Where the face paint has been chipped, red wood, and occasionally, a mealy white power from an earlier layer (maize or cassava flour paste?) is evident. The back is shallow and plain with only a slight indication of a buttocks crevice. The feet are heavy and crudely carved (one foot has 6 or 7 toes). The figure will actually stand with only slight propping under each heel. There is a slight change of color in the surface immediately below the waistline. This would suggest that a skirt might have once hid the genital area. Human hair is glued onto the surface with a shiny, almost clear resin.

    The British Museum piece and the Gelbard figure are related but do not appear to have been carved by the same artist. These two figures adhere to similar cannons of form and iconography perhaps stipulated by the same patron—an especially influential Yao Initiation Master (nakanga, or namkhungwi). Initiation Masters were responsible for commissioning and gathering together all associated didactic paraphernalia used in important Yao initiation ceremonies. They managed the entire community of participants for weeks, or even months on end, and performed simple surgical operations on the initiates. The figure possibly functioned as a didactic tool designed to leave an intensely memorable impression on the initiate.

    So far as can be determined, this sculpture is an authentic and extraordinarily rare example of late Nineteenth century (c. 1890) Yao figurative carving. Not only is this figure physically impressive, but it has the potential to become a renown, classic example of figurative art from this region.
    - Dr. Michael W. Conner
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