The Toledo Museum of Art’s Apollo Society has acquired Figure of a Woman Carrying a Child, a wooden sculpture from the Tabwa peoples in central Africa dating to pre-1880. The subject’s short, bent legs, rounded hips covered by a fiber skirt, elongated neck and torso, pierced ears and cap-like braided hairstyle are indicative of the culture’s idealized female beauty. The patterned scars carved into the figure’s torso, back, neck and head represent rituals of tribal initiation, whose rites deliberately left scars to dramatize the struggle of people against the forces of nature.
Tabwa villages were autonomous until colonization by Christian missionaries began in the 1870s. Because these ancestral figures were perceived to be idols, most were destroyed by Western occupiers. This example, believed to be one of the only Tabwa maternity figures from the 19th century to exist, was carried out of Africa about 1880 by a man who was likely the brother of one of those missionaries.