Art
What the Western World Has Gotten Wrong about African Hemba Sculpture
Detail of Hemba people, Commemorative figure, Democratic Republic of Congo, probably 19th century. Photo by Luigi Spina. Courtesy of 5Continents Editions.

Detail of Hemba people, Commemorative figure, Democratic Republic of Congo, probably 19th century. Photo by Luigi Spina. Courtesy of 5Continents Editions.

Detail of Hemba people, Commemorative figure, Democratic Republic of Congo, probably 19th century. Photo by Luigi Spina. Courtesy of 5Continents Editions.

Detail of Hemba people, Commemorative figure, Democratic Republic of Congo, probably 19th century. Photo by Luigi Spina. Courtesy of 5Continents Editions.

The Hemba (or Bahemba), an ethnic group in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, have a long and illustrious artistic tradition. Their wooden sculptures often depict solitary male figures with long necks, symmetrical features, and—sometimes—two heads. Yet curators and scholars call these two-faced works “Janus figures,” referring to a Roman god of whom the Hemba certainly had no awareness. This small mischaracterization illustrates how the discourse surrounding such sculptures easily becomes warped by Western frames of reference.
In the 1600s, the Hemba split from another major tribe—the Luba—and settled between the Congo River and Lake Tanganyika. During this period, Arab slave traders ravaged the region. In the later part of the century, King Leopold II of Belgium, known as the “Butcher of Congo,” began his alleged attempt to “civilize” the nation. He enslaved the entire region while, according to some estimates, murdering and mutilating over 10 million Congolese. The country was an official Belgian colony from 1908 until 1960. This violent, dehumanizing history has also reverberated across European interpretations of Hemba art.
Aside from recent carbon dating efforts, precise dates for Hemba sculpture (and much of African tribal sculpture, for that matter) prove elusive. Museums and publications frequently use the dates when Europeans first documented these objects during the 19th century. A history of conquest and looting, then, is embedded in the sparsely detailed descriptions for these works.
By the late 1800s, Europeans began extracting tribal artworks from the African territories they were colonizing. As Erica P. Jones, associate curator of African arts at the Fowler Museum, explained, the Belgians “had a policy for advocating for the extraction of African art objects. Part of it was in a misguided approach to say ‘We’re preserving culture’ as a paternalistic idea. It was also because there was a huge, growing market for it.” According to Jones, the market really took off in the 1910s and ’20s.
Detail of Hemba people, Commemorative figure, Democratic Republic of Congo, probably 19th century. Photo by Luigi Spina. Courtesy of 5Continents Editions.

Detail of Hemba people, Commemorative figure, Democratic Republic of Congo, probably 19th century. Photo by Luigi Spina. Courtesy of 5Continents Editions.

Detail of Hemba people, Commemorative figure, Democratic Republic of Congo, probably 19th century. Photo by Luigi Spina. Courtesy of 5Continents Editions.

Detail of Hemba people, Commemorative figure, Democratic Republic of Congo, probably 19th century. Photo by Luigi Spina. Courtesy of 5Continents Editions.

Artists such as , , and all incorporated the shapes and planes of tribal art into their paintings; African sculpture significantly contributed to the development of Cubism and the modernist experiments that followed. A new book out from 5 Continents Editions, entitled Hemba, reveals both the advances Western scholars have made in understanding work once taken for granted—and how much we still don’t know about the intricate wooden sculptures carved by the Hemba.
The images in the book all document works in one collector’s Brussels home. Photographer , who wrote a prose poem for the new volume, recalls the mystical experience of visiting the collection, held at a remote house in the woods. “We are surrounded by a world built by others; others who lived before us,” he told Artsy. “Each sculpture leaves the mark of a cultural and social world, and is obviously the reflection of the soul of an artist, of other people.”
In the book, Cleveland Museum of Art curator Constantine Petridis discusses how political and economic turmoil in the 1970s led Europeans to import massive quantities of Hemba sculpture. “Transformations in local authority structures and the diminished influence of traditional Hemba chiefs were accompanied by a decline in the belief in the spiritual efficacy of Hemba figures as ancestral intermediaries,” he writes. As the Congo—then called Zaire—fell prey to a military dictatorship under President Mobutu Sese Seko, Petridis suggests that the people lost faith in their own traditions, devaluing sculptures of their ancestral leaders.
During this decade, scholars François Neyt and Louis de Strycker began studying Hemba art and dictating its place in Western art history. Notably, they were the first Western art historians to separate Hemba art from Luba art; Neyt himself established 11 regional substyles of Hemba art. Yet Petridis points out a flaw in these distinctions: Often, he wrote, “it cannot be determined unequivocally whether a claim about provenance is based on collection data or instead on style analysis and comparison.”
In the 1970s and ’80s, Thomas D. Blakely and Pamela A.R. Blakely conducted the first significant anthropological study of the Hemba. Their 1987 paper “So’o Masks and Hemba Funerary Festival” focused on one particular subset of Hemba art. It’s only in the past few decades, they wrote, that “leading scholars have endeavored to enlarge our understanding of African art by doing and encouraging field research in Africa concerning the production, uses, and ethnoaesthetics of African art in its social and cultural setting.”
Detail of Hemba people, Commemorative figure, Democratic Republic of the Congo, probably 19th century. Photo by Luigi Spina. Courtesy of 5Continents Editions.

Detail of Hemba people, Commemorative figure, Democratic Republic of the Congo, probably 19th century. Photo by Luigi Spina. Courtesy of 5Continents Editions.

Detail of Hemba people, Commemorative figure, Democratic Republic of Congo, probably 19th century. Photo by Luigi Spina. Courtesy of 5Continents Editions.

Detail of Hemba people, Commemorative figure, Democratic Republic of Congo, probably 19th century. Photo by Luigi Spina. Courtesy of 5Continents Editions.

Only about 40 years ago, then, did Westerners attempt to understand this tribal art by engaging with its makers. Although we often fetishize Western artists’ creative personalities and lives as individuals, details about the Hemba people remained untold for decades as historians fixated on the objects instead of the cultures and people that produced them.
In their essay, the Blakelys discussed a wooden “chimpanzee-human” mask that features a long, curved incision for a mouth, thin slit eyes, and a teardrop nose. The artwork, they claimed, is supposed to inspire fear. “If you as a Muhemba [an individual Hemba] saw anything like this…you would not pause, but would run full blast in the opposite direction,” they wrote.
At funerary festivals, a community member dresses up in ceremonial regalia (perhaps a barkcloth cape with pelts and monkey hair framing the mask) and chases pregnant women and young people. Later, this so’o dances and performs, inspiring joy and laughter. According to the Blakelys, the alternate conjuring of fear and happiness offers counterpoints to feelings of grief. The so’o helps the community work through death while “satisfying the desires of the dead to be remembered, celebrated, and appropriately sent off to their new abode,” they wrote.
The Blakelys concluded that “direct-viewing methods of analysis and interpretation alone, or in combination with minimalist identification of local terms or ‘symbols’”—what many museum visitors received at the time—were insufficient. Good exhibitions, they suggested, would unite numerous pieces from the same region or ethnic group.
In 2011, curator Alisa LaGamma staged “Heroic Africans: Legendary Leaders, Iconic Sculptures” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, one of the most comprehensive surveys of African art to date. To emphasize the multiplicity of her theme, LaGamma divided the exhibition into eight sections, each celebrating a different geographical tradition.
Many of the objects included in the show were, in fact, dated before colonialism. In his review for the New York Times, Holland Cotter wrote: “This means that realism in art, which the West tends to view as its distinctive accomplishment, developed independently in Africa, though there, with so many other rich options available, it was only sporadically esteemed.”
In particular, Cotter lauded the included Hemba sculptures as “one of the great sights in the museum these days.” In addition to their beauty, sophistication, and nuance, he pointed out their moral dimension. Figures of Hemba leaders established heroic values in the community: transparency, moral sobriety, and—with reference to the Janus figures, perhaps—“a capacity for looking backward and forward from wherever you stand.” Our own 21st-century leaders would do well to take note of such values.
Alina Cohen is a Staff Writer at Artsy.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Hemba was published by Abrams; it was published by 5 Continents Editions and distributed in the United States by Abrams.