Democratic Republic of the Congo
Wood and paint
c. 19th century
H: 31.5 cm, W: 13.5 cm, D: 10.3 cm (H: 12.4 in, W: 5.3 in, D: 4.0 in)
Fowler Museum at UCLA. The Jerome L. Joss Collection. X87.1479
This framed statuette, with arms extended, stands on a stool; a bird looks down from above him. The Holo, Shingi, Songo and Chokwe call this type of figure nzambi after the Nzambi cult of which it is an emblem. The statuette is said to have come from the Luremo, Camaxillo and Lubala region, where Bastin reported the considerable development of the Nzambi cult (Bastin 1979:36), the true nature of which is not fully known. Scholars are uncertain how early to date the earliest nzambi figures. The first explorers who arrived in the region in the nineteenth century reported seeing nzambi figures. Capello and Ivens, Portuguese explorers who left Banguelle in 1877 to discover the northern part of Angola and the region of the Kwango, saw a figure of the nzambi type in Chiboco, the Chokwe region corresponding to the area where this figure was found (Capello and Ivens 1969:I,113). The figurine was in a small house or chapel where a local cult dedicated to it presented it with offerings. The local population called this figure ngana nzambi, which the two explorers translated as “My God.” In inquiring about the origin of this cult object, the explorers were told that nzambi had been brought to the region by an Mbaka (Ambakista). Nzambi figures probably originated in the seventeenth century. According to Maesen, the nzambi evoke the Christian crucifix introduced tat that time by the Capuchin missionaries who settled at the Saint Marie mission of Matamba (Maesen 1956:44). Influenced by christian practices, the Holo built small cult houses for the nzambi figures and presented them offerings, in a manner similar to the reverence shown toward framed christian crucifixes and figures of saints, which they call Santu. The occidental influence on the art of the Holo can also be seen in the frock coat and hat of the Joss figure. The plastic conception of the figure is, however, characteristic of the Holos of Angola: an elongated face inscribed in a triangle; almond eyes; a triangular, elongated, thin nasal plane with well tailored alae; a prognathic mouth; short, bent legs; and carved, geometric motifs decorating the frame. A number of nzambi figures represented as standing on a stool have been found in this region of northern Angola. The example at the University of Pennsylvania (Wardwell 1986:135, fig. 67) is similar in many ways to this example. The motifs of the man standing on a stool and the bird on the sculpture glorify two ancestors. The stool is an emblem of authority, the man appears to be an ancestor of high rank whose spirit, transporting vital and vitalizing forces, receives the name of Nzambi. The ancestors are the protectors of the clan; they possess and distribute the lands, forests and all the riches in which they abound. They generate well-being, inflict and cure sickness, and ward off evil curses and spells. Nzambi surmounted by bird sculptures have also been found in the region of northern Angola. The bird is the mvunzi, the sparrow who, the Holo believe, is manipulated by the forces of evil and causes certain illnesses in children. Protection from the malevolent spirits of the mvunzi requires a specialist, who prescribes the carrying of different charms, especially that of the bird nzila. It is for this reason that Holo place figures of birds on the roofs of their houses. These two images straightforwardly register the symbolism of the harmony of space and time, of the incarnation of the spiritual in material, of the reconciliation of heaven and earth. The symbiosis of two images make nzambi an object of maximal power of protection, of well-being, and of the fecundity of man. It also doubles the strength and power of nzambi, whose presence in the Holo house simultaneously represents both prevention and therapy. In one word, it is a protector.
Source: Ross, Doran H. ed. (1994): “Visions of Africa”, Los Angeles, UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History. page 116-117