By Carla Herling
Drake University (formerly University of Iowa)

Democratic Republic of the Congo; Kongo peoples

Phemba (funerary figure)


H. 52 cm (20.5")

University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art, The Stanley Collection, X1986.518

Art objects may also represent women's failure to bear healthy children.  This Kongo sculpture of a woman called phemba, holding what appears to be a dead child in her lap may represent the wife of a chief presenting to him their first born child, still-born or dead soon after birth.  Such figures may have been used to counter the effects of diseases introduced by foreigners that caused sudden and devastating decrease in fertility rates in western Democratic Republic of the Congo in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  The woman wears the chief's hat, called mpu, and elaborate scarification patterns on her shoulders and back.  Around her waist she wears a belt with small packets of magical materials suspended from it.