Birthing Figure - Southern Africa

This remarkable female figure in birthing posture shows flexed, wide-set shoulders, a strong torso, and a dished face with bared teeth and eyes inset with mother-of-pearl. The figure’s wide open gaze, open mouth, and bunching, stretching limbs powerfully express the exertions of childbirth as the newborn’s head emerges prominently from between the figure’s legs. While much of the surface of this figure has been darkened by scorching, the face and ears have been left with a natural patina, highlighting the face with its fixed and intense expression. As a powerful example of an extremely rare type, this figure’s sculptural power is matched by its cultural importance – it is one of the most unusual and formally striking figures from eastern Africa during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Birthing figures in southern Africa were originally produced as one half of a gendered pair of instructional images, or matano, used for the initiation of youths (the corresponding male figures featured prominent genitalia). They played an important role in the education of young men and women about sex, reproduction, and adult life at a time of transition from childhood into adulthood. Their function as didactic tools explains their lack of wear or heavy patina, as initiation schools were of short duration and were not necessarily annual.

Though exceedingly rare today, it is possible birthing figures were more ubiquitous before the arrival of prurient missionaries, who were known to disfigure sexually explicit male figures and may have destroyed these works during their indoctrination efforts. There are at least two gendered pairs in museum collections today, one held in the Johannesburg Art Gallery with the female in a similar birthing position, and one in the Musée du Quai Branly with a standing female.


Late 19th or early 20th century
Wood, pokerwork
16 1/8" h
Provenance: Private French collection; Pierre Darteville; David Henrion, Brussels; Kevin Conru, Brussels
Published in The Art of Southeast Africa, Kevin Conru, plate 111, p. 176
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