Motherhood, Femininity, & Strength: Carving the Female Figure

75.91Africa
Luluwa peoples, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Female Figure, Lupinga lua Luimpe
Nineteenth century
Wood, incrustation, kaolin
H. 17 in. (43.2 cm)
Raymond and Laura Wielgus Collection
Indiana University Art Museum, 75.91

A woman does not always have to be soft and delicate. This statement seems self-evident, yet, as a student of gender studies, I am always amazed at how often modern American media equates femininity with delicacy and softness. Many times, you will find television shows or magazine articles about wedding dresses and cupcakes directed at the female population from early childhood through young adulthood. These media streams are what teach women to be “correct” mothers throughout their lives. This is not necessarily a bad thing. However, there is something fascinating to me to see how gender roles throughout the world have evolved and changed during the course of history.

This is probably what led me to Female Figure (Lupingu Iwa Bwimpe) by the Luluwa peoples of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Tucked away in the Raymond and Laura Wielgus Gallery of the Arts of Africa, the South Pacific, and the Americas, this sculpture is as distinctive as it is beautiful. It was created around the second half of the nineteenth century and portrays femininity and motherhood within the Luluwa culture, which made me want to learn more about it.

The figure, made of wood, incrustation and kaolin, is a fertility figure used amongst the Luluwa peoples as part of a cult directed toward mothers and their newborns. This cult is a small religious group that uses the carved figures as a way to protect the fertility of the mother and to ensure the beauty and health of the newborn child. Spiritually charged—and recharged when necessary—the figure is said to protect the mother and child from harm and is a conduit for ancestral aid.

The notions of motherhood portrayed in this piece are similar to how we typically think of motherhood in America today: the mother as the nurturer, the selfless beacon, the caretaker. However, there is a particular look of power and determination in the eyes of the figure that tells that there is more to the story of Luluwa motherhood.

In the Luluwa culture, a woman who is a hard worker is often favored. This is portrayed with the large head (which symbolizes intelligence) and the muscular arms and calves of the figure. Motherhood is more than being gentle with the Luluwa; it is also about being strong and powerful.

This, to me, is powerful imagery. It is a great reminder that femininity and delicacy are not the only traits women and mothers possess—despite how our media might portray women in current American society.

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R.C.

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