Mbole Ofika Figure, Democratic Republic of Congo

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  • Mbole Ofika Figure, Democratic Republic of Congo
  • The Ofika are representations of a hanged prisoner. These statues served as a warning to anyone who wanted to break the rules of the Lilwa, power association.
  • Bambole are a people whose rites have remained rather mysterious to us.
  • The society of the Lilwa (which could be compared to the Bwami of the Lega) organized the social structure, ensured the stability of the community and punished those who transgressed (among other things the well-kept secrets)
  • Their art is best known for the famous "OFIKA", sculptures of hanged criminals, masks are more rare. 
  • They live in the "central basin", they are neighbors of the Kela, the Yela, the Jonga and the Lengola
  • Ethnic Group: Mbole (Bambole), Yela.
  • Origin: Democratic Republic Congo (ex Zaïre, ex Belgian Congo).
  • Material: Wood, shells (cowries)
  • Measurements: About 13 3/4 high.
  • Condition: Medium - Bad
  • This Male Figure takes the form of a Hanged Man, an image central to Mbole's Initiation Practices into the Law Enforcement Association known as Lilwa.
  • It is distinctive for its delicately pigmented surface, the interplay of concave, convex and flat planes, and its strong three-dimensionality. The focal point of the composition is the head which is defined by an alternation of convex and concave passages and accentuated with white pigment. The eyes and mouth are articulated as narrow slits on slightly raised surfaces and the nose protrudes as a triangle, its underside marked with two small holes for the nostrils. These facial features are inscribed within a concave heart-shape, whose upper ridge defines the eyebrows and marks the transition between the white concave surface of the face and the convex area of the prominent forehead covered in yellow pigment. At the summit of the head is a crescent-shaped coiffure. On either side of the face, aligned with the eyes, are semicircular ears that project perpendicular to the head. The jaw’s straight lines contrast with the fullness of the head. The neck tappers down from the bottom of the ears towards the slopping forward-projecting shoulders. The overextended arms seem to dangle down, framing the long and slim torso. The figure's trunk is marked vertically by a central yellow band that contrasts with its otherwise darker tint. The elbows are the only defined features of the largely tubular arms, and they extend slightly outward. The yellow-colored hands rest on top of the thighs, framing the figure’s genitals. The legs are spread apart about the width of the torso, all the way down to the feet that are angled downwards. In contrast to the figure’s strong verticality is the arrangement of its features in successive horizontal lines, from the head to the feet: the ears and eyes, the elbows and belly-button; the hands and genitals; and the strut that connects the feet. The figure’s strong three-dimensionality becomes apparent in profile. Its back is rounded, giving it a defined hunched position; the arms dangle away from the flat plane of the torso, and the legs are bent. The downward slope of the figure’s forehead is echoed in the bend of the forward-projecting shoulders, and in the angled knees. Hands, fingers, legs, and feet all hang as if unsupported. The body is repeatedly perforated side to side: through the back at the shoulder blade level and above the waist; through each foot at the heel; vertically through the back of the head; through the top center of the coiffure; and at the base of the neck.
  • This figure takes the appearance of a hanged man. The facial expression has been described as one of "resigned sadness" (Cornet 1971, p. 273 and 285). Conventionalized polychrome Figures carved in this manner represent individuals who were hanged for violating the public order and transgressing the laws of a powerful association among the Mbole, known as Lilwa. This graded association performed ritual, educational, jural, social, political, and economic functions (Biebuyck 1995). The Lilwa association is related to the better-known Bwami association of the Lega peoples, the Mbole’s southeastern neighbors. While the Lega use a multitude of small-scale objects as part of the initiation into Bwami, Lilwa’s artifacts are few and are striking for their comparatively large scale.
  • The anthropologist Daniel Biebuyck has highlighted Lilwa’s sophisticated moral philosophy (Biebuyck 1976, 1979, 1995). This philosophy and way of life were instilled into most members of Mbole society, during a period of initiation during which they learned basic social and ethical precepts. All young men and some women (daughters of the highest-ranking initiates) were initiated into the basic introductory level of Lilwa. At that time, they were isolated in a forest lodge and, guided by a ritual expert (onanga), passed through a series of trials. Congolese psychologist Kalala Nkudi's study of the Mbole’s social structure and the steps of Lilwa initiation reveals that Ofika (hanging) figures were central to the final moments of the initiation when initiates were allowed to see and touch the symbolic objects of Lilwa. According to Nkudi the sculptures allowed the elders to explain the consequences of immoral conduct, to impart respect for elders, to transmit concepts about etiquette, and to warn against adultery, thieving and lying (Nkudi 1979, pp. 20-21).
  • The practice of hanging was central to law enforcement in Mbole society and was done publicly in the village, with great pomp. The spectacle must have been striking: a special status-holder of Lilwa placed a liana around the victim’s neck and attached it to a flexible, bent tree, which pulled the body into the air when released. The sculptures, carved at the request of a Lilwa elder following an execution, represented particular individuals who were condemned to death by Lilwa. While the figures should not be considered as portraits of offenders, the carvings were given their names and perpetuated their memories. This element of personification was expressed during the initiation rituals that showcased the figures. Indeed, as the ritual leaders showed the Ofika figures to the neophytes, they warned the young initiates with these words: “Watch out, if you scorn the customs of the ancestors, we will kill you and fix you in a statue, as we did for the son of X and Y” (Nkudi 1979).
  • Bringing nuance to the interpretation of the hanged man imagery, Biebuyck suggested that the Ofika figures might allude to another important moment in Mbole society, the pre-burial rites performed for high-ranking Lilwa members. Following their death, their body was suspended from a pole in their house to collect fluids. These fluids were then sprayed to transmit vital force to their successor (Biebuyck 1986, p. 242).
  • In addition to initiations, the figures were shown on other rare occasions: to protect society from calamity and in times of persistent bad hunting, when oaths were taken, or when serious conflicts between parties needed to be settled. Colonial administrator V. Rouvroy observed the appearance of such figures in 1928. The arrival of the figures was announced with drumming, to warn off women and children. Generally, however, they were hidden from sight by high-ranking initiates, either in or outside the village, as non-initiates were entirely forbidden to see them. They were prepared for display by being repainted. Once ready, they were brought out by a special status-holder called isoya (the same individual who acted as the supreme judge in criminal cases that require execution by hanging). The figures were carried lying on their backs on small litters. They were affixed by straps traversing the holes made in the carvings. In a manner reminiscent of Mbole burial customs the sculpture was displayed on the litter in the manner of a corpse (Rouvroy 1929).
  • In his attempt to interpret the deeper significance of the Ofika figures, Biebuyck suggested that they helped neutralize the souls of criminals (Biebuyck 1976, p. 58). This interpretation is connected to a Mbole belief, according to which the souls of the dead are reborn with their previous characteristics. The figures may serve to attract and house the souls of hanged criminals in order to prevent their rebirth.
  • This work was collected at an unknown date in present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo. It is first documented in 1939, when it appeared in a photograph illustrating a display of art from the Congo at the Vlesshuis Museum in Antwerp, Belgium. It was on loan there with a number of works from Antwerp’s ethnographic museum. These included four examples of Ofika figures acquired from the Antwerp-based dealer Henry Pareyn in 1920. In 1955 Antwerp’s ethnographic museum agreed to an exchange with Belgian collector Jef Van der Straete of this Ofika and a Kongo power figure against a sum of money and three Oceanic figures. Over the course of the following decade, the Ofika went through the hands of Belgian dealer Edmond Morlet, who sold it to the New York-based Congo art collectors, Clark and Frances Stillman. The Stillmans sold their collection to the Museum of Primitive Art in 1968 and the work was transferred to the Metropolitan Museum in 1978.
  • Yaëlle Biro, 2016
  • Circa 1920-40