By Eileen Moyer
University of Amsterdam (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

Kongo philosopher Fu-Kiau has written that "Man through his initiations follow the sun, because he himself is a second sun" (cited in Thompson 1981). Kongo cosmograms, in various cross shaped patterns, represent the "four moments of the sun" which correlate birth with sunrise, the height of human existence with noon, death with sunset, and ancestorhood with midnight (Thompson 1981). The burial site of a revered ancestor is often transformed into a shrine in Kongoland. Sculptures representing the deceased are sometimes commissioned to be placed on the grave. Occasionally, portraits of important women may be rendered in wood, stone, or cement. Usually such women are the progenitors of important family lineages. The woman represented in this sculpture may be the wife, mother, or sister of a departed chief who may have held office momentarily at the time of his death. Sadly, the child that she cradles appears to be dead, signifying the end of her family line. Her grief is apparent in her saddened demeanor.