A number of style characteristics help identify this as the work of the Hemba, who live east of the Lualaba River, rather than of the Luba, who live on the west bank: the shape of the head, with a high, domed forehead, very sharp, angular jawline, and a long, elegant nose, combined with the elaborate, cross-shaped coiffure are all typical of the Hemba style.
This type of objects is found throughout the Luba/Hemba/Kusu/Bembe area of southeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, both east and west of the Lualaba River. A very similar piece in the Tishman collection (now in the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution), also distinctively Hemba, has been discussed in depth by Huguette Van Geluwe, following a description by Father Pierre Colle (1913). Such torsos were originally mounted on a calabash in which magical materials were stored. These were the property of the Buhabo society, or Bugabo among other groups. "The Buhabo maintained that its intention was to promote mutual aid, but the principal, if unavowed, goal was actually the enrichment of its members. By using aggressive methods including poisoning and murder and by preying on people's fear, gullibility, and belief in sorcery the Buhabo extorted payments from their victims... At the top of the [Buhabo] hierarchy was the grand master (tata or kalunga muhabo). One of his privileges was to be the guardian of the great material representation of the protective spirit of the Buhabo" (Van Geluwe in Vogel 1981: 223-5). The kabwelulu consisted of a wooden torso with holes pierced around the base so that it could be attached to a large calabash.
Unlike many of the examples of the type, this figure has a large hole pierced from the head through the base, so that magical materials could be poured into the funnel-like top of the head and fall into the container below. In addition, this beautiful figure lacks the heavy crust of sacrificial and magical materials that originally covered the Tishman piece. Instead, it displays the beautiful modeling of body forms and contrasts of colors that the artist originally intended his patrons to see.
Professor Christopher Roy, 1991
Colle, Pierre. Les Baluba (Congo Belge). Collection de monographies ethnographiques 10, 11. Brussels, 1913.