Birthing Figure - South Africa

This striking 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 newborn’s head emerges 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.

Birthing figures in South 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). Though rare today, it is possible they were more ubiquitous in eras preceding the arrival in the region of prurient missionaries, who may have destroyed such works during their indoctrination efforts.


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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