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Figure (Mwana nya Nhiti)

The Zaramo are one of several peoples of northeastern Tanzania who traditionally use small abstract depictions of female heads and torsos as part of female initiations. With obvious connections with fertility—after a woman’s marriage, the figure may also play a role in rites to ensure a successful pregnancy—the figures are also considered one of the ways in which the living maintain contact with their ancestors. Though the figures are female in appearance, the overall form frequently appears phallic; scholars have suggested that this dual appearance affirms the fact that both men and women are needed for the continuation of a lineage and refers to the traditional bilineal nature of Zaramo society, in which descent was traced through the mother’s line, but authority in spiritual matters came from the father’s.

Zaramo peoples, Tanzania
Figure (Mwana nya Nhiti)
20th century
Wood
H. 5 3/8 in. (13.7 cm)
Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Museum of Art, 88.11.1