This striking ivory spoon was made by the Lega people of the DRC, and is much more than a simple utilitarian object. The handle is a female (?) figure with traditional Lega characteristics, including a large head, a reduced body, nugatory arms, a heart-shaped face, an incised mouth, cup-and-ring eyes and a domed forehead. Her gender is suggested by two cup-and-ring marks where her breasts would be. Her legs are absent, replaced by a palette-like eminence that balances the large spoon bowl that projects from the top of her head.
Spoons are not merely utilitarian objects to the Lega, especially high-status examples such as this. A fuller analysis of its significance is presented below after a short introduction to the Lega people.
The Lega people are amongst Africa’s best-known carvers and artists. Currently settled in the Kivu province of the eastern DRC, they believe themselves to be descended from an eponymous ancestor who migrated into the area from what is now Uganda. They are also known as Warega and Balega, based on corruptions of their actual name by neighbouring groups and Arab traders, respectively. They live in small villages and consider themselves parts of distinct lineages, although to outsiders the “Lega” group is a well-defined unit. They are further defined on the basis of their modes of subsistence. The western Lega settled in the forest (malinga), where they rely on hunting and gathering, while the eastern groups live on poor soils, further denuded by their mode of slash-and-burn agriculture.
Lega government is based along the lines of a gerontocracy; and balanced very finely between leading members of different lineages. The Lega believe in a trio of gods named Kinkunga, Kalaga and Kakinga, and that when humans die they will enter a subterranean afterworld known as Uchimu. Social life is structured by three main social institutions: family and kinship (ibuta), circumcision rituals (ibuta) and the Bwami society. Of these, the latter is perhaps the most powerful. It is centred upon the guidance of young people to moral maturity, although it also fulfils a range of other political socio-political, economic and artistic functions. Much of the paraphernalia produced by the Lega pertains to the workings of the Bwami society. Examples include initiation objects – that are sometimes ground away and the resulting dust used as a healing device – isengo (lit. “heavy things” used in healing), binumbi (publicly visible insignia), bingonzengonze (“things of play”) and the large category of sculpted objects/assemblages known as bitungwa. Spoons such as this are known as kalukili or kakili, a play on words as the term also means “heir”, and is linked to the notion of continuity.
Ivory spoons are prestige objects for high-ranking members of the Bwami society. Older males eat their food with them to remind onlookers of elders’ importance to social stability, and they are also placed in the mouths of boys undergoing circumcision as biting bars. They are linked to various sayings that use the shape of the spoon for sexual imagery (“Kalukili – yo used to give me the idago [vulva], now you give me the back”), while the Bwami also hold ceremonies where members “feed” a masked performer with a spoon, giving rise to the metaphorical term: “Old Turtle is eating pounded bananas”.
This is a socially significant piece of African art.
Further reading: Cameron, E. 2001. The Art of the Lega. UCLA Press.