Tsonga Initiation Figure - South Africa

Standing at just over nine inches tall, this female figure projects a monumental quality that would surely have enraptured and inspired its previous owner, the great collector and artist Josef Herman, who said this piece remained a favorite all his life. When Herman bought the piece from renowned dealer Ralph Nash in 1971, he exclaimed “How can Ralph not see the power in this piece? He let me have it for only a few hundred pounds and I was willing to pay thousands!” Its massive shoulders, thick legs, oversized feet, and small head all contribute to an aura of solidity and strength. A hint of contrapposto and a slight tilt of the head animate the body, lending a lifelike attitude. Viewed in profile, the varied directionality of the coiffure, breasts, arms, and buttocks forms an angular dialogue. A dark patina graces the figure’s smooth surface, inviting bright highlights that emphasize its robust physicality.

A similar figure to the present example, now held in the Museum für Völkerkunde in Vienna, was collected by Adolf Eppler in the 1880s among the “Shangana Kaffirs” (Transvaal Tsonga), giving significant credence to a Tsonga origin. That figure was part of a male/female pair, such pairs being carved for initiatory use by certain tribes of southern Africa, such as the Sotho and Venda. The Tsonga had extensive connection to these tribes through geographic proximity and periods of vassalage, and this particular style of figure may have been produced by a Tsonga artist for use by a neighboring tribe.

That this figure was made for the indigenous community’s use and not for European buyers is clearly indicated by its jutting breasts and sharply delineated pubis. The prominence of these features is common to initiation figures, which served to instruct young women and men in their understanding of reproduction and gender roles. When not actively in use for didactic purposes, the pubic area of the figure would be clothed in a small apron of cloth, leather, or beads.

19th century
H: 9 in

Ralph Nash (1928-2014)

Josef Herman (1911-2000), Suffolk, UK

Christie's, Amsterdam, The Josef Herman Collection of African Art, December 12, 2000. Lot 364.

Kevin Conru, London/Brussels, Belgium, 2000, #KC 176

Private collection


Fagg (William), Miniature wood carvings of Africa, Bath: Adams & Barth, 1970:103, pl. 102

Gillon (Werner), Collecting African Art, London: Studio Vista and Christie's, 1979:167, fig. 212

Expo cat.: Miniature African Sculptures from the Herman Collection, text by Hermione Waterfield, intro by David Attenborough, London: Arts Council of Great Britain, 1985:44, #31

Expo cat: Africa: The Art of a Continent" Phillips (Tom), editor, Munich/New York: Prestel, 1995:#3.43

Klopper (Sandra), Nel (Karel) & Conru (Kevin), Art de l'Afrique du Sud-Est de la collection Conru, Milano: 5 Continents, 2002:89 & 194, #32

UK: Miniature African Sculptures from the Herman Collection:

- Durham: DLI Museum and Art Centre, May 11-June 16, 1985

- Bristol: City of Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, June 22-July 27, 1985

- Swansea: Glynn Vivian Art Gallery and Museum, August 3-September 7, 1985

- Sheffield: Graves Art Gallery, September 14-October 20, 1985

- Coventry: Herbert Art Gallery, October 26-December 1,1985

London, UK: Africa: The Art of a Continent, Royal Academy of Arts, October 4, 1995-January 21, 1996

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