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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Masterpieces of African Art : Hemba or Luba Bankishi Magical Fetish Figure
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Hemba or Luba Bankishi Magical Fetish Figure - PF.1984 (LSO)
Origin: Southeastern Congo
Circa: 1870 AD to 1920 AD
Dimensions: 11.25" (28.6cm) high x 5.5" (14.0cm) wide
Collection: African
Medium: Wood

Location: United States
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This striking light-wood sculpture is a bankishi divination device from the Luba (or perhaps Hemba) cultural group. The attribution is uncertain because of the stylistic vs. functional aspects of the piece – the tradition to which this refers is Luba, yet the style of the piece is more akin to the Hemba. The sculpture represents a woman’s (?) head and torso down to the waist. The base is low and conical, with the smoothly- refined torso arising from it. The body is geometric and reductivist, with powerful angulation of limbs, shoulders and back. The head, which sits on a thick, low neck, is very delicately and precisely carved. The face is broad, tapering to a squared chin that is delineated by a beard-like relief line. The forehead is also broad, with high, arched brows, narrow eyes, thin lips and a long, aquiline nose decorated with three longitudinal scarifications. The apex of the head is demarcated with a cap/hat which has been truncated to provide a flat top for the piece, which has been hollowed out for reasons that are described below.

The Luba people were once the major power in this region, with over a million people paying tribute to the descendants of King Kongolo Maniema (who founded the dynasty in 1585). They were particularly reliant upon fishing and industries such as metalworking, leading to their status as a primary node on an ever-expanding trade network that wound its way throughout West Africa and as far as the Indian Ocean. They expanded enormously during the 18th and 19th centuries, but were seriously impacted upon by slaving missions and the rise of the Ovimbudu people of Angola; they were eventually subsumed into the Belgian Congo Empire in the early 20th century. The nature of their relationship with the immediately proximate Hemba people is still something of a bone of contention in African art circles.

They were governed by a combination of divine kingship and rule by council; the king (Mulopwe) ruled through a set of social notables who were collectively known as Bamfumus. These both controlled the Balopwe or “clan kings”, who governed designated areas as symbolic sons of the king. Social harmony and memory was controlled through the Bambudye (or Mbudye) secret society, whose members are obliged to remember and recite the whole history of the Luba people from their foundation, often using “lukasa” boards as aides-memoire. The Mbudye tradition states that all rulers of the Luba Empire traced their ancestry to Kalala Ilunga, a mystical hunter credited with toppling the cruel ruler known as Nkongolo. This figure is also credited with the introduction of advanced iron forging techniques to the Luba peoples. Aristocratic status is attained by the ability to trace one’s lineage to a founding member of the Luba people; although western academia might dismiss most of the early stages as myth, Mbudye memory scholars consider then to be the essence of truth. The king lists are especially important, as the divine status of rulers has had a notable effect on the arts and crafts of the Luba empire.

The Luba are renowned for their figures more than their masks, which are extremely rare and usually resemble the Kifwebe masks of the Songye group. Shrine paraphernalia such as staffs, headrests, bow stands, and royal seats are known, reflecting the divine status of the ruler and the elegant refinement of his court. Carvers display incredible flexibility in terms of their representation techniques, some of which are so distinctive that pieces can be attributed to individual artists (such as the Master of Buli, one of the few historically-recognised indigenous carvers). Mwadi – female incarnations of ancient kings – are a common characteristic of Luba art, and indeed the vast majority of known sculptures depict female rather than male figures. Women also play key roles in Luba creation myths, and are strongly associated with divination paraphernalia, such as the current piece.

Bankishi figure are magically charged by the addition of magic substances, or Bijimba. The current piece has a patina suggestive of libations, themselves magical, but the main charge would have been placed in the hollow in the head, which is now empty. The figure is believed to be powerless without this material, which can include human bones (for life force) or the hair of twins (for fertility). Multi-headed varietals are known, which are believed to represent increased powers of vision and clairvoyance and vision.

This is a powerful and compelling piece of magical African art, and a notable addition to any serious collection of the genre. - (PF.1984 (LSO))


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