Mipasi (Ancestor Figure)

Central Region Style Two

By: Adenike Cosgrove Tagged:


The early 19th century saw a number of Tawba families grow their wealth by building trade agreements with other families in the region. This sudden growth in wealth saw these families establish prestige and control over their given communities. To further validate their superiority and in turn, their right to govern and rule, wealthy families developed historical connections with ancestors. They invented ancient lineages and commissioned religious specialists to create wooden royal ancestor mipasi (also called mikisi) figures to legitimise their claim to power. And thus a new genre of sculpture was created amongst the Tabwa.

Passed down through the generations, mipasi figures are kept in special buildings within the compounds of the ruling elders. The figures are believed to embody the spirits of ancestors and as such have healing and protective powers. Mipasi figures are placed at the entrance of the village to ward off witches and sorcerers, placed beside a sick person to cure an identified ailment or placed near the workshops of blacksmiths to prevent evil spirits from disrupting their work. During new moon festivals, the figures are offered sacrifices and food offerings to heighten their powers and to bring good fortune to the community and its leaders.

Bernard de Grunne summarises the use of mipasi figures well when he says that "these are portraits of ancestors who founded the clan or who had an important role to play in the history of the clan... The role of the ancestor statues was to protect the village and especially the chief, who is generally a descendant of the person represented [by the figure]. The statuettes were placed in huts of the same form as those in which the BaTabwa live, but of much smaller size... These huts are usually found near the home of the chief..."1

Distinguishing Features

Common features among all mipasi figures:

    • Height = average of 15 inches
    • Standing nude figure
    • Elaborate hairstyles (hair braid or cap)
    • Slightly upturned head
    • Thin elongated torso
    • Linear geometric scarification represented on body and face
        • The most common pattern is a series of triangles juxtaposed in divided diamonds (balamwezi, meaning 'the rising of the new moon')
    • Arms at their sides, carved free from body
    • Hands resting on abdomen
    • Strands of beads sometimes attached around necks, wrists, ankles, and / or waist in female figures
    • Bent knees

Regional variations (central region style two: chiefdoms Manda, Tumpa, Zongwe, Kalezi, Kapampa and Kilunga):

    • Male coiffure usually a wide plait, women's in shape of round cap
    • Oval face
    • Straight chin
    • Little almond shaped eyes
    • Thick lips
    • Beaded necklaces
    • Elongated torso
    • Torso scarification: long vertical line down abdomen, enhanced by triangular motifs open at the top and at bottom; sometimes triangles are separated by a diamond shape

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