Important and Rare Chokwe Female Figure, Angola
Wood, pigments, metal
height 43 1/2in (110.5cm)
Soroto, Leon, African Spirit Images and Identities, Pace Gallery, New York, April 24 - May 29, 1976.
Cornet, Joseph, A Survey of Zairian Art; The Bronson Collection, 1978, fig 80
Gillon, Werner, Collecting African Art, 1979, p 31, figure V right
A Survey of Zairian Art; The Bronson Collection:
North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, April 23, 1978 - June 4, 1978
Museum of African Art, Washington, D.C.
July 25, 1978 - September 25, 1978
Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, Los Angeles
November 14, 1978 - January 21, 1979
Field collected by Jacques Kerchache
Pace Gallery, New York
Lee Bronson Collection, California, acquired from the above in March 1977
This superbly carved and well-proportioned monumental standing female represents power, beauty and elegance, all of which suggest an important royal function. Cut away from her now-lost backboard when collected in the field by Jacques Kerchache, she wears a stoic facial expression, with raised, arched brows above large coffee-bean eyes, slit horizontally across and divided by a long linear nose with diminutive nostrils above a slit mouth accenting the formal qualities of the eyes. Her face is bordered by well-defined demilune ears pieced at the lobes, and a finely incised domed crown or coiffure. The woman's head rests on a slightly elongated cylindrical neck which nests comfortably in her rounded shoulders which lead to her arms hanging in a relaxed position, slightly bent at the elbows. Her right hand holds a symbolic implement, her left faces out to the viewer in a welcoming gesture. Her pendulous breasts, slightly protruding stomach and exaggerated and elongated labia highlight her elongated torso which nests in her rounded hips leading somewhat naturalistic legs, comfortably bent at the knees and ending in feet with delineated toes (the right with an ancient loss, perhaps intentionally for divination purposes). This accomplished female wears symbolic scarification throughout, including three incised lines on her forehead, raised crescents on her cheekbones and on her chin. Running along her collar, from shoulder to shoulder is a row of incised chevron design which is amplified on her triceps. Raised and incised scarification embellish the torso overall, accentuating her matriarchal importance and designating her a fulfilled woman who has undergone many initiations. She wears an interlinking metal necklace, red pigment overall, a burnished coiffure or crown, black pigment highlights the eyebrows, eyes and mouth with kaolin highlights, a symbol of purity.
According to Elizabeth Cameron, "The initiate's teacher and the community of women are, metaphorically, the artists who create the artwork of the ideally socialized women. It is male sculptors, however, who physically portray the visible aspects of the ideal woman in freestanding sculpture. These male representations form part of the negotiations between men and women over ideal female form.
Male sculptors portray what they consider to be ideal in women, and, in reality these perceptions are important because what men find attractive affects the ability of young women to find mates and become pregnant. Women, however, exercise great control within the initiation context over the ideals portrayed by male sculptors. They either incorporate or change the ideals that sculptors portray, and they select those qualities that they find attractive themselves. All these interactions contribute to the constant redefinition of the ideal female form.
Although motherhood is the ideal for women, men's images of women focus rather on potential motherhood. The sculptors often show the woman idealized as the potential mother seen at the mwadi stage, with high, tight breasts rather than sagging ones that have nursed babies, and they pay close attention to the physical manipulations that occur during initiation.
Scarification patterns are not symbolic; rather they are mnemonic in that they remind women of particular things. The first and most basic set of scars, called nyakaka meaning simply 'marks for a woman,' consists of three parallel lines cut on the pubis, and they are commonly represented on sculptural figures. This pattern can be cut in childhood, rather than during initiation, as part of the preparation for initiation that girls undergo. Lines around the navel have the name katala makovu, or 'look at the navel.' Several patterns usually appear on the back, including majiku (cooking fire) and hanonosia (stars).
The women I interviewed regarded facial scars, now rarely seen on any but old women, as beautiful but not particularly erotic. This reinforces Marie-Louise Bastin's remark that facial scars are 'symbolic and ritual recognition marks' that designate membership in clans and particular societies." (Jordan, Manuel, Chokwe! Art and Initiation among Chokwe and Related Peoples, 1998: p. 79)
According to Joseph Cornet, "In the same manner as Pende doorposts, this female figure positioned before a thick panel (carved later to make the figure stand out) must have been part of an aristocratic architectural structure. The figure stands with arms hanging freely on either side of the body and holds an unidentified object in one hand.
The head is particularly well sculpted. Black surfaces on the overall background of red emphasize several important elements: the striped headdress, long eyebrows, typical coffee-bean eyes, and widened mouth. Moreover, use of a whitish pigment gives particular animation to the eyes and mouth.
Special care was taken with the scarifications, all of which have individual names in the Tshokwe language; they include lines on the forehead, arcs on the cheeks, dotted lines on the chin, chevrons on the chest and arms, diamonds and horizontal lines above the navel, and parallel lines on the pubis. This figure is of exceptional size and artistic quality and had an important use." (Cornet, Joseph, A Survey of Zairian Art: The Bronson Collection, The North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, NC, 1978; p. 144)
Manuel Jordán, Ph.D. (personal communication, 4/2013) confirmed Cornet's analysis of this figure, adding that the Chokwe have a well-established tradition of carving figurative posts and architectural elementswell documented in the context of chief's courts. Unlike the better-known Pende examples, Chokwe architectural figures are extremely rare in private or museum collections.