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. At the summit of its head is a slender vertical projection with two lower lobes inscribed with parallel lines. This projection depicts a coiffure or headdress associated with a high-ranking male, among whom distinct headgear was a symbol of status. The tapered, oval-shaped face is dominated by a high forehead and a large, slender triangular snub nose. The mouth is rendered as a narrow slit. Set into shallow cavities below a slightly projecting brow, the rounded eyes are punctuated at the center by a horizontal line, which gives the impression of eyes narrowed in concentration. Semi-circular ears project from either side of the head, with c-shaped carvings along the frontal edges to delineate the earlobes. The head rests upon a squared columnar neck. The "body" or grip of the comb is a flat, unornamented square. Three thick teeth of equal length project from the grip, tapering into soft points. Unusually, the teeth and grip are the same length as the carved head and coiffure, the latter of which dominate the object. The surface of the comb is smooth, and light 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–.5 and 2011.11.7). 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 headgear of the male elite. 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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