Comb (yisanunu)

Yaka peoples

Not on view

This figurative wooden comb (yisanunu) was worn by a high-ranking Yaka man as a symbol of his status. The “body” or grip of the comb is a flat rectangle that is rounded on the top and ornamented at the bottom with an incised pattern of nested almond shapes. Unusually, this example depicts two faces carved in low relief, mirrored horizontally. Sharing a common mouth, rendered as a narrow slit, each has a bulbous, upturned nose and heavily lidded eyes set into deep cavities. The closed, half-moon shape of the eyes may allude to the ‘inner vision’ of a leader. Each face is encircled by a deeply incised half circle that ends at the edges of the nostrils, a division representative of the hairline. Three thick teeth of equal length project from the grip, tapering into soft points. The surface of the comb is smooth, and deep honey-brown in color.

Combs such as this example were worn by northern Yaka dignitaries as hair ornaments prior to 1930. Many were made in the area of Popokaba, but as they were traded extensively, some were collected as far as the court of the kyambvu at Kasongo Lunda. While the Yaka are matrilineal, their leadership is patrilineal: it is arranged through a strict hierarchy of paramount, regional, and village chiefs, as well as ritual specialists and diviners. Correspondingly, the art of the Yaka is also hierarchical, with much of it reserved for specific religious or chiefly users. The iconography of these combs reinforces the societal role of their wearers through the depiction of the multitude of coiffures and headgear used to distinguish Yaka dignitaries (see also 2011.11.1, 2011.11.3–7). Certain historical headgear and hairstyles were depicted on these combs, even though those styles were frequently updated. Carvers likely elected to represent these historic fashions to suggest a link between the wearer and revered individuals of earlier generations. While little is known about the function of these combs, Arthur Bourgeois has suggested that they implied the power of their male wearer. (Bourgeois 1980, 46).

The carving of the miniature forms is stylistically and iconographically related to the way that Yaka sculptors gave figurative definition to other artifacts ranging from slit gongs to whistles to statuettes used by ritual specialists. The faces and hairstyles seen on these works also evoke those on masks produced for boys’ initiations, which in turn evoke the coiffures and headgears of the male elite. The rounded top of this comb suggests a cap, or possibly the rounded top of the monumental mask known as Kakungu (see Yale University Art Gallery 2006.51.226). Thus, the use of this sculptural convention across media and usage reinforces ideals of certain elite men in Yaka society.

Kristen Windmuller-Luna, 2016
Sylvan C. Coleman and Pam Coleman Memorial Fund Fellow in the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas

Further Reading
Baaren, Theodorus Petrus Van., and Arthur P. Bourgeois. Iconography of Religions. The Yaka and Suku. Leiden: Brill, 1985.

Bourgeois, Arthur P. "Kakungu among the Yaka and Suku." African Arts 14, no. 1 (1980): 42.

Bourgeois, Arthur P. Yaka. Milan: 5 Continents, 2014.

Bourgeois, Arthur P. "Yaka and Suku Leadership Headgear." African Arts 15, no. 3 (1982): 30–35.

Comb (yisanunu), Wood, Yaka peoples

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