Expressing one of many Luba sub-styles, the tall, standing male figures created by master carvers of the Hemba culture in southeastern Congo since at least the mid-1800s arguably rank among the noblest sculptural depictions of the human figure in sub-Saharan Africa. With their serene gaze and meditative expression, they exude a tranquility and dignity that befits these idealised likenesses memorialising esteemed leaders of the past.
Infused with a life-force or vital energy, these spirit-invested objects were able to communicate between the living and the dead. Thanks to their inner power they had the capacity to impact the material sphere by allowing the ancestors to positively influence the well-being of their surviving relatives.
In this publication, through the perceptive lens of art photographer Luigi Spina, we discover nine of the most accomplished Hemba creations whose classical style has triggered comparisons with some kouroi sculptures of ancient Greece. Spina's photographic interpretations help us understand why these proportionally balanced and symmetrically conceived ancestral figures have earned the admiration of African art lovers around the world.
These personal readings of the beloved Hemba commemorative portraits also confirm why these sensitive renderings of the human anatomy deserve inclusion in the universal history of artistic creativity and a place in André Malraux's 'Museum Without Walls'.
Text in English and French.