Death and Rebirth

By Christopher D. Roy
University of Iowa

Democratic Republic of the Congo; Hemba artist
Singiti (male ancestor figure)
H. 73.7 cm (29")
University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art, The Stanley Collection of African Art, X1986.313

Death is the final event in life, and is celebrated by the same important rites of passage that mark every significant transition in the life of an individual or a community in Africa.  As in initiation, death is a leaving behind of one phase of life and the beginning of another, and so, the death of an elder includes separation from the community of the living, a journey to the land of ancestors and reintegration into the world of the ancestral spirits.  The memory of the deceased may be preserved and the living may appeal to the spirit of the deceased to act as intercessor with the spirits of nature to secure their blessings.  The figure from the Hemba people was placed with several additional figures in a small hut to protect it from the rain, and represented the ancestors of the family.  The elegant cross-shaped hairstyle was so common in the area of eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo in the 19th century that it was described by the missionary doctor David Livingstone.