We have launched a new website and are reviewing this page. Find out more
Open daily 10.00 to 17.45 Admission free Menu

A Tabwa ancestor figure

Female ancestor figure, early 20th century. Museum no. Circ.290-1950

Female ancestor figure, early 20th century. Museum no. Circ.290-1950

This elegant figure was created by an unknown Tabwa maker in the Lake Tanganyika region of southeastern Democratic Republic of Congo in the early 20th century. The figure embodies the female ancestor of a Tabwa ruler. The creation of male and female ancestor figures by the Tabwa came about through changing power structures in this area. In the 19th century a group of elite Tabwa families attained leadership though their involvement in regional trade. As new rulers they wanted to prove that their right to rule was historically pre-determined so they commissioned sculptors to create wooden figures that reflected their chiefly ancestry. A new genre of figure sculpture was established.

As ancestor figures these sculptures were passed down through the family. They were cared for by family elders who kept the figures in shrines within their compounds and made frequent offerings to them for the well-being of the family and its lineage. The figure's powers could be heightened by being anointed with magical medicines and they were used in a number of ways: to protect the sick from evil forces, villages from unwelcome intruders and to ascertain the guilt, or otherwise, of a defendant.

The Victoria and Albert Museum's figure is a classic example of a female figure of this kind. Its height of 37.5cm puts it close to the average for such pieces (39cm). It is naked (some figures wore decorative strings of small glass beads, this figure has glass beads for eyes). It has an elongated neck and body, and the arms are carved free of the body and end in hands resting on the stomach, below which are the legs with bent knees. The face, neck and body are covered with intricate skin-markings and the elaborate skull-cap style hairstyle is typical. As the Belgian Lieutenant Emile Storms noted of the hairstyle of people in the Central Tabwa region of the Marungu Massif in the 1880s.

'The coiffure is identical for both men and women. The front part of the head is shaved in order to enlarge the forehead. The hair is shaped into pellets the size of small nuts and mixed with clay and fat. The head is covered with parallel lines of these pellets which are then sprinkled with red powder.'

Hairdressing, scarifications (skin-markings) and other body arts were important to the Tabwa as they reflected important elements of Tabwa philosophy and cosmology. The most common motif, a series of triangles juxtaposed in divided diamonds, is called 'the rising of the new moon' ('balamwezi').

In the first decades of the 20th century zealous European missionaries tried to quash the expression of traditional belief systems by the Tabwa and the ancestor figures disappeared from use. This figure was acquired by a British man who left it to the Museum in a bequest in 1949.

Further reading

Maurer, Evan M., and Allen F. Roberts. Tabwa, The Rising of a New Moon: A Century of Tabwa Art. Michigan: The University of Michigan Museum of Art, 1985

Yoshida, Kenji, 'Standing female figure' in Africa, Arts and Cultures. John Mack (editor). London: British Museum Press, 2000, 206-07

'Standing Male and Female Figures [Democratic Republic of Congo; Tabwa] (1978.412.591,2)'. In Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000-. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ho/10/sfc/ho_1978.412.591,2.htm (May 2008)

Interactive Map

Discover the many treasures in the beautiful V&A galleries, find out where events are happening in the Museum or just check the location of the café, shops, lifts or toilets. Simple to use, the V&A interactive map works on all screen sizes, from your tablet or smartphone to your desktop at home.

Launch the Interactive Map