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Central and Southern African Tribal Art

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African Dolls - Fertility Dolls

South African Dolls - Child Figures from Southern Africa

Poupées Africaines - Afrikanische Puppen




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African Dolls


Historic Doll Images


The primary function of African fertility dolls is to encourage and ensure the fertility of those who possess them. For this reason nearly all are phallic in form. Young girls play with dolls, which  helps them envisage their future roles as adult women, mothers and primary caregivers in their communities. Though used in play, the forms of many dolls encode important social and aesthetic concepts about appropriate demeanour and the links between physical and moral beauty. Mothers make fertility dolls for their unmarried daughters while young childless women may make them for themselves. Not surprisingly, dolls in different African societies emphasize in both form and decoration, aspects of ideal feminine beauty. They include elaborate coiffures, body ornamentation and physical features that underscore the importance of fertility.





Angolan Doll - Namibian Dolls




A Mundimba girl with her omuzizi doll.


Little contact has been made with the people of South-western Angola over the past forty years due to the regions remoteness and the thirty year Angolan Civil War. The situation encouraged the continuation of non-westernized tribal culture with deep routed traditions. Prior to this -  Lubango, the largest European settlement in the region, 'boasted' to be the only city in the colony made up of a 'white majority' at independence, the result of the regions semi-nomadic people outright refusing to live there. For these reasons, old traditionally used authentic dolls have been found in the 21st century, held dear by a sparse population that remains fiercely tribal. 




Mwila - Ngambwe Dolls


Mwela - Mumuhuila - Muila - Ovamwila




Small Mwila children with elaborate coiffeurs.


The Mwila and Ngambwe form part of the Nyaneka group of people. They live nearest to Lubango (directly south - south east), are pastoralists and dwell in small village clusters along the high ridge of the Serra da Chela mountain range. In their current setting, a child's tribal awareness precedes the ability to walk.




Mwela Doll + - 22 cms


The Mwila doll above and below is of the highest quality. Young girls refer to their dolls as O'vilolo or O’jilolo. Built on wood, the mother assists in 'dressing' the phallic figure with tied net fibre. Woven dreadlocks are added and the doll is decorated with beads and fabric in a like manner to Mwila attire. The large green and white beads comprising the triangular motifs reached their height of popularity during Portuguese rule.




African doll - Angola - # 775


The two larger locks to the rear of the doll are called nontombe (above right). They are meant to mimic a married woman coiffure, terminating with large green beads and small white conus shells. Married women's current fashion requires four to six nontombe, while wearing three indicates that someone in her family has died. Nontombe are essential dress, made from a mix of ochre, oil, crushed bark, dried cow dung and fragrant herbs.




Ngambwe Doll - Angola


Mungambwe - Gambwe – Ovangambwe




Ngambwe Doll - Angola - # 536


The Ngambwe are neighbours of the Mwila living directly east on the Angolan plateau. Their dolls do not have the knot netted body, but like all dolls from the region, are phallic in representation.




Doll measures + - 23 cms.


This doll embodies a rich golden deep patina of animal fat. Fabric is obtained from the doll makers clothing. Plastic, wire and grass fibre rings are added from those worn by the owner. Beads decorate the braided hairdo, meant to replicate the owners coiffure.




Mundimba Dolls -  Angola / Namibia


Ndimba - Zemba -Mundimba - Mundemba - Mu Dhimba




Mundimba girl with omuzizi Doll


The Mundimba live directly south of the Mwila and Ngambwe in Angola and due to the civil war, into Namibia. There they are known at the Ndimba, pronounced Zemba. The written word Zemba is not known by the core group of Mundimba living in nearby Angola. Incorrect attributions of 'Zemba doll' should be amended in collections. 




Mundimba Doll # 776 + - 25 cms


This example is elaborately dressed with old wooden wicker ovikeka belts and a woven glass beaded belt called ekonda. Young girls wear ovikeka as anklets and decorative belts before and during puberty. The fashion has its foundation in efiko, a ceremony celebrating the passage to womanhood.




Ndimba Doll # 776


Dolls may be passed down from mother to daughter, and are cared for like 'children'. The rope or cord attached to the face of the doll (above left) is always placed forward and used to hang the doll up in the hut for safe keeping. Girls would never leave a doll on the ground with chicken or dogs, as doing so would defeat the purpose of caring for the ‘child’. Note the woven pattern found to the rear of the doll's glass beaded belt (above right).




Mundimba girl with Doll


This girl decorated her dolls coiffeur more than her own, which is often the case and seen as an act of caring and exhibiting wealth.




Another - Ndimba Doll




Mundimba Doll # 777


The hair on this highly decorated Mundimba doll is made from baobab tree fibre. The coiffure is styled after the young girls enyonga coiffure. It and the other dolls have a wicker woven basketry flare at the base, not meant to make them stand up (as even with they often do not), but to act as hips to keep the doll dressed.




Mundimba girl with Doll


Here again, the owner decorated her doll more then herself - an act of caring and celebration of wealth.





This doll contains two surprises. Hidden under the loin covers is a miniaturized ‘three tube’ traditional belt made from cotton fabric, exactly as some adult women wear (above - small arrow). Belts attach a woman's front skirt called otjitopa and the rear skirt called ozutha at the waist. We have not seen a fabric example replicated in a doll before, so the element highlights the authenticity of the old doll, while underlining the effort taken in its creation.




Mundimba Doll # 777 +- 26 cms


The second surprise is placed to the rear of the doll in the form if a decorated efiko apron. Dr. Estermann (ethnologist) identified the additions as omundondi wovilanda. These were worn during the a young woman's puberty 'arrival' ceremony called efiko, or fico, or ehiko or efuko. At the time the girl is known as ovafiko. The efiko event is obligatory and conducted prior to marriage. This dolls heavily beaded coiffeur and  wooden wicker ovikeka belts indicate it has entered the period of efiko.




Hakawana Doll - Omuzizi


Hakaona - Vakahona – Muhacaonas – Mucawona - Kwanyoka




Hakawana Woman - Check the 21st century hairpin named otjitungo!

The Hakawana also live to the south of the Mwila and Ngambwe. They are an identifiable small tribe interspersed with the Mundimba in both Angola and Namibia, the latter also as a result of the Angolan Civil War. Hairstyles of women are reminiscent of the ancient Egypt and called orupore (above). Hakawana are independently minded, more so then any of the South-western Angolan groups - and they are far more nomadic then the three mentioned tribes. Regardless of missionary efforts, few if any Hakawana have been evangelized. When confronted with a hospital or nearby town, they opt not to send their children to school.




Hakawana Doll # 778


This Hakawana doll has everything - age, use, wooden wicker and glass beaded belts, camouflage fabric and very heavy beaded coiffeur decoration. This is the heaviest and tallest doll offered.




Hakawana Doll  + - 29 cms


The owner (seen earlier and below) was born in Angola and sold her childhood doll in Namibia. We learned that the Hakawana name given to a doll will become the name of the first-born child. The Hakawana do not seem to build an efiko coiffeur onto pubescent girls, but they do pass through the period of the efiko ceremony and exhibit the most highly decorated coiffeur affairs through their dolls.




Hakawana woman - omuzizi doll.



Follow this link to view child figures in private collections from Angola. 






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Ntwane Initiation Dolls


Gimwane - Ntwana Dolls - Circa 1970's




Ntwane Girls with Gimwane Dolls - Barbara Tyrrell - Circa 1950 © Copyright


The Ntwane are of Sotho / Tswana origin and share ties with the Ndebele. The name mean 'hard-headed warrior' which is appropriate, as they fiercely fought South Africa's forced removals.




Ntwane "gimwane" Doll - # 741 - ex collection POS Udo Horstmann  O. H. S.


The emphasis on the Ntwane women’s central role as wives and mothers is pervasive before female initiation. It finds its most visible form in the gimwane or popenyane – a traditional fertility doll constructed from plaited grass, wool, and beads.




Ntwane 'gimwane' Doll - 741 / Close-ups - side and rear of circa 1920 glass buttons.


The skills necessary for producing the gimwane are passed down from mother to daughter. Pre-initiate girls pretend the dolls are the progeny of their current boyfriends, who are invited to participate in a dance competition, the outcome of which determines the leader of the prepubescent group.




Ntwane Girl with Gimwane Doll - Barbara Tyrrell - Circa 1950 © Copyright




Two other Ntwane "gimwane" dolls made for young girls initiation. (9304 & 9307)


The young boys usually congregate at the home of one of the girls, who places the gimwane in a line. The “fathers” and “mothers’ then form two rows on either side of the fertility dolls and proceed to dance with their partners.




Ntwane Initiation

Although these fertility dolls have no specific sexual articulation, the gender of some gimwane may be determined by the shapes of their frontal or rear apron. Male gimwane are dressed with rectangular front loincloths, while the female dolls are identified by V-shaped aprons which resemble the rear aprons worn by uninitiated Ntwane girls.




Rock on Ntwane Gimwane - Barbara Tyrrell - Circa 1950 © Copyright






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Swazi Snuff Doll - Indlelo


Suspended Fluted Snuff Bottle - Doll




Fluted snuff containers made of horn were worn on the hip in southern Swaziland. Cotton wool and glass beads decorated the objects. They hold a striking resemblance to Swazi fertility dolls - worn in a similar manner as Swazi living to the north.





Fluted snuff bottles were made by Zunda speakers, who used them as fertility dolls. Gordon Crawford writes; In southern Swaziland maidens would give their personal snuff container to their boyfriend to wear. This act of intimacy indicated to everyone that he had a girlfriend. - A few elderly Zunda speaking people interviewed have stated that they were named after snuff containers given to fathers by mothers. - This overlap between dolls and snuff containers is understandable when one realizes that both the dolls and the snuff containers are worn identically to sway from the hip at traditional dances. - It may be that the suspended snuff container is the precursor of the Swazi fertility doll, which is probably a beaded pseudo snuff container.







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 Ndebele Dolls - South Africa


umndwana - Circa 1950's





Beaded Ndebele dolls were made for adolescent girls either by their mothers or by the girls themselves. This Ndebele doll sports eight beaded rings on a phallic torso, with twelve others strung along connecting arms, similar to the two ladies below.




Adult women in traditional Ndebele dress.  © Copyright


The Ndebele dressed their dolls much as they did their person. Above - beaded neck, body and arm rings once worn by Ndebele women.




South African Doll - Ndebele


Small doll charms were made to be given away as presents - or sold as souvenirs. It is nevertheless old rather old, confirmed by its oxidized copper wire leg rings.




Ivy's Album - Ndebele Section © Copyright


The Ndebele Ndzundza live in Mpumalanga South Africa in and around farming communities. They called their dolls "umndwana".






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Zulu Fertility Dolls




Zulu Doll 'A'


Zulu dolls from the Msinga area were made by girls at the time of their engagement, then worn on her neck during special occasions. If the owner visited her prospective in-laws she would put the doll’s hair over its face as a sign of respect. After she married, a tuft of red wool would be put on the doll’s head which made the statement; I’m married. The doll would be put in a place of honour in her hut and eventually would be given to her child or grandchild.





These pictures were likely taken during the 1960's and would have been commissioned by the girls to send to their boyfriends who lived in the urban areas. Each girl holds a related doll.




Zulu Doll B  + - 11 cms


This dolls coiffeur is long and was the fashion prior to 1930 - which helps date the object.


Doll measures + - 11 cms.

The doll carries a baby. We know only a handful of others, one of which appears in 'Tracing the Rainbow', which may well have been made by the same hand.




Figure 151 - Tracing the Rainbow - Page 189






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Shangaan Fertility Doll


Tsonga Fertility Doll




Tsonga -Shangaan women dressed in early 20th century attire by Duggan-Cronin.


The Tsonga and Shangaan people refer to dolls as nwana, which means 'child'. Although they represent children, they are dressed like their adult owners (above).




Shangaan Doll + - 15 cms.


This Tsonga Shangaan doll is from the collection of John Williams. John Williams assembled a Southern African collection with objects dating to the mid-20th century and before. He lived in the Shangaan area of South Africa, as well as in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe).  This striking doll has three very large panels and is decorated with bells and beaded tassels. The panel above is representative of a cape.



Tsonga Shangaan  Doll


Dolls of the Tsonga and Shangaan were made by pubescent girls and their mothers. They appear at the girls puberty ceremony called khomba or musubethu. When a girl married, she would take the doll with other items to her new home, where ultimately a real child replaced the doll.





The Star of David pattern is found on one side panel. The design also appears in Ndebele and Venda beaded work. It is generally accepted that the region adopted the symbol from the Lemba, known as 'black Jews', who trace their origins to Yemen. Recent DNA testing confirms the Lemba descend from a priestly caste of Judaism, i.e. descendants of Aaron. As a result of migration, an ancient symbol was absorbed by Southern African beaded tradition, as well as basketry. The fabric is often Salempore - a material from India. Salempore was traded to the area through Delagoa Bay and is locally known as nwalukambu.





The surface of the old doll is testament to its old age.


Another (?)




Tsonga - Shangaan / North Sotho Beaded Bottle


Beaded bottles, particularly those with brads or tassels attached to a stopper as the example above, are known to have been used as fertility dolls. The form lends itself to traditional dolls. The idea was copied by the North Sotho, South Sotho, Tsonga/Shangaan and Xhosa clans.





South Sotho beaded dolls - centre a beaded glass bottle. UCLA Fowler Museum  





The bottle was collected in a colonial context with an old Shangaan beaded panel.






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Rare Ba Tonka - Clay Dolls


Children of the Earth



Ba Tonka Women - Circa 1949 - Barbara Tyrrell / Peter Jurgens © Copyright


The Tonga, Batonka or Batonga, currently live on both sides of the Zambezi River and Lake Kariba in Zambia and Zimbabwe. In 1960 the Kariba dam was completed, which was then the largest man-made dam in the world. The Tonka were forced to relocate from flooded valleys where they had lived and fished for what may have been over two millennia. Museum records confirm most tribal people of Southern Africa made clay dolls during the 19th century. The Ba Tonka were no exception (below).




Ba Tonka Doll 405 + - 27 cms


'EVOCATIONS of the Child' refers to Southern African child figures made of clay as 'Children of the Earth'. John Williams collected these dolls on the Zambian side of the river. His Southern African collection contained mostly items dated to the mid-20th century or before.




Ba Tonga Doll 401 + - 30 cms


The second example has a removable head. To our knowledge, clay dolls by the same hand are found only in one museum collection.






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Phallic Dolls of the Turkana


Turkana Fertility Dolls - ikoku - Child



Turkana girls wearing dolls to their chest.


The Turkana live in a harsh environment in northern Kenya and Uganda. They are able to create something out of just about everything around them, confirming that scarcity is the mother of invention. Dolls are worn as charms until such time as the first child is born.




Turkana Doll A


Turkana fertility dolls are made from palm nuts, glass beads, plant fibre and leather. Nuts that grew naturally in a three lobed form are chosen and resemble male genitalia. The facsimile is perceived to be a woman's body, thus symbolically dressed in woman's attire.




Turkana Doll A


The phallic head becomes the doll's neck, while testes its body and legs. The entire surface is decorated with rows of beads held together with leather strips.




Turkana Doll A


The hairstyle is simple and that of a married woman. Sometimes a leather apron is attached to the waist, but beads to display wealth are also added (below).





Turkana Doll - B (Faced Down)

The making of dolls is primarily the preserve of Turkana women. The choice of beads and colour arrangement can have both social and ritual significance. The beads of a doll are given to the girl by her lover's best friend. In the case of a young married woman, her husband's best friend takes over the role. For this reason the doll is named after the donor of the beads. The lovers or married couple then consider the doll as their child. After giving birth to her first child, a woman gives the fertility doll to a younger sister.




Turkana Doll  - B


Finally, girls may play with and actually wear these dolls from a young age (first image). As they grow up, the fertility aspect of the figure becomes of paramount importance, which is why they always are worn facing up (above).



Both Turkana dolls include custom made stands.








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