Jealously guarded, the ancestor stands in the gloom of the funeral building, which has the shape of a beehive, or the chief's mausoleum. Firmly planted on his legs, he has his hands on his bulbous belly near the navel, in a veiled evocation of the transmission of life through the woman and, above all, the tie of blood indicated by the umbilical cord. The noble head, with its stong, domed forehead, is the dwelling-place of spirit and wisdom. The four-part cruciform hairstyle is held up by a square of raffia; bearing the imprint of the major styles of the southern Niembo, it emphasizes the high princely rank of the great Hemba families of the Mbulula region. The face is refined and distinguished, framed by a diadem decorated with lozenges and a finely sculpted narrow beard. The mouth is carefully traced; the aquiline nose extends the plane of the forehead and transects the eyebrows, which are carved in the form of arches to give added importance to the eyes.
The eyes, closed to this ephemeral world, are open to the invisible realities of the present and the future. The owner of the statue softly calls his ancestors by name when he venerates them and offers them the required propitiation through the intermediary of the spirits of the janiform power figure kabeja. Thus each ancestor is named, counted, and situated in time and in the history of his family. Some princely families possessed as many as ten or twenty of these funeral effigies. While prayers and invocations were meant to link spiritual and metaphysical realities, they also served as praise, intercession, and supplication to protect and watch over the family and its possessions; the ancestors were understood as so many notches on a genealogical tree, emphasizing the family's great nobility, its prosperity, its right to possess the lands that it cultivated as its own. Hence, the effigy is part of a system of worship founded upon both belief in an afterlife and a system of kinship and property.
Notes courtesy of Francois Neyt from the book, African Art from the Barbier-Mueller Collection, Geneva, edited by Werner Schmalenbach, Prestel-Verlag, Munich, 1988.