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Artwork Details

circa 1880
6 5/16 in x 2 in x 1 5/16 in (16.03 cm x 5.08 cm x 3.33 cm)
Gift of Candis and Helmut Stern

On Display

Not currently on display


Subject Matter:

This finely carved, large-toothed wooden comb (cisakulo) with an anthropomorphic support is attributed to the Lwena, who live in Angola, Zambia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo and are closely related to the neighboring Chokwe and Lunda peoples. The purpose of combs such as this one is, of course, primarily utilitarian: to provide a firm grip on hair needed to create an elaborate coiffure.  The ownership and use of combs cuts across social rank and gender, and decorative ones can certainly be considered a form of personal art. What is paramount in decorative combs are the motifs and specific imagery carved on them which hold a special symbolic and iconographic significance to their owners.

According to art historian Niangi Batulukisi, the particularly elegant carving of this comb distinguishes it as a “glamorous accessory” and “ostentatious object that is usually reserved for nobility” (100). Its head represents a guardian spirit or hamba (plural, mahamba) who serves as an intermediary with the creator god and is responsible for imparting protection, fertility, and prosperity to its possessor.  The comb's stylistic features such as its fine geometric pattern and sensitively carved face bear striking similarities to Chokwe combs. Ultimately, this comb can be regarded as both a beautifying object and an object of beauty in its own right.  

African Form and Imagery:  Detroit Collects.  Ed. Judith A. Ruskin.  Detroit: Detroit Institute of Arts Founders Society, 1996.  
Maurer, Evan M. and Niangi Batulukisi.  Spirits Embodied:  Art of the Congo, Selections from the Helmut F. Stern Collection.  Minneapolis:  The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 1999.

Physical Description:

This wooden comb, or cisakulo, is composed of six long teeth and an anthropomorphic support. Its handle includes a rectangular section with multiple bands of diagonal, incised lines. This section along with the teeth of the comb visually form an abstracted body for the delicately carved head, which sits atop the handle. These lined motifs as well as the fine facial features are similar to those found in the figural carvings of the neighboring Chokwe; the striated turbanesque coiffure, however, is distinctly characteristic of the Lwena style.

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