Object Name: Hermaphrodite figure
Culture: Songye peoples
Place of Origin: Democratic Republic of the Congo
Date/Era: Late 19th to early 20th century
Medium/Materials: Carved wood, horn, glass beads, shell, copper alloys, iron, plant fiber
Dimensions: H: 29.5 cm
Credit Line: Fowler Museum at UCLA. Gift of Barbara and Joseph Goldenberg.
Accession Number: X2010.16.57
The Songye peoples created power figures like this one to safeguard their community from specific threats such as drought, disease, or invasion. Village members conceived of these sculptures as earthly intermediaries who could channel the powers of the ancestors for the common good. Once a figure was carved, a ritual specialist, or nganga, would activate the figure’s powers by inserting a special mix of plant, mineral, and animal substances into a cavity inside its abdomen. The figure’s protruding belly alludes to these supernatural powers and also to the prosperity and fertility of the community lineage.
Source: Gallery text, Fowler in Focus: Radiance and Resilience: Arts of Africa and the Americas from the Goldenberg Collection, 2011.
See also: Marla C. Berns, World Arts, Local Lives: The Collections of the Fowler Museum at UCLA. Fowler Museum, Los Angeles, 2014.