Tchokwe Comb

Artist: Unkown
Culture/People: Tchokwe
Place: Congo (Central Africa)
Media: Wood, pigment (?)
Dims: 5.87 x 2.25 x .5 in. (14.9 x 5.7 x 1.2 cm).
Date: x. 1920
RTC No.: AF0040
Gift of Ralph T. Coe, 2011


In the realm of functional beauty, Tchokwe combs (cisakulo) not only served a utilitarian purpose, providing a reliable way to care for and hold together intricate hairstyles, but also evolved into expressive forms of personal art. The significance of these combs lies in the meticulously carved motifs and imagery, having profound symbolic and iconographic meaning for their makers and owners.

The Tchokwe people currently live in Angola, as well as some parts of Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Tchokwe were part of the Lunda empire in 17th and 18th century Angola and rose to prominence after the dismantling of the Lunda empire around 1900. The Tchokwe people expanded into Zambia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 

Combs, crafted for both practical use and ornamental adornment, played a crucial role in maintaining the hair of Tchokwe men and women and simultaneously serving as indicators of rank and wealth. The Tchokwe create two distinct types of combs made from either wood or bamboo. Wooden combs often have sculptural tops with relief carvings on the sides of the comb. Tchokwe carvings pay meticulous attention to the details of the subjects they depict; for example, some combs show scarification on the figures represented. The carvings on the wood combs often depict social and religious themes. Bamboo combs exhibit a different aesthetic and are held together by a weaving technique that keeps the bamboo teeth together. 

The comb depicted above is a wood comb with a relief carving. The carving design on this comb shows two individuals carrying what appears to be a deceased or ill person. Just below the figures represented on both sides of the comb, in low relief, is decorative carving in the classic Tchokwe style.

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