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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Lega : Lega Ivory Figure of a Woman
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Lega Ivory Figure of a Woman - SP.116 (LSO)
Origin: Congo
Circa: 20 th Century AD

Collection: African Art
Medium: Ivory
Condition: Very Fine


Location: United States
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Description
This archaic-looking figure is a remarkably unusual kalimbangoma or iginga sculpture from the Bwami secret society, the central foundation for social structures in the Lega tribal group. The figure depicts a female with a very large, round head, a slim, tapering body, short, strong legs and disproportionately short arms. The shoulders/breasts are fused into a single unit in a manner reminiscent of Dogon pieces. The feminine charactersitcs are very understated. The whole piece is remarkably slim from front to rear, which is unusual for Lega pieces of this sort. The facial features are also non-standard, for they are typically carved more “in the round” with the brows cut-away to a recessed face divided by a long nose. In this case the eyes are rendered as cup-and-ring marks and the nose as a series of incised lines, as is the mouth. The ivory is unusually pale in colour, and crackled with the texture of age. The surface is glossy, implying handling and perhaps the application of libations over a long period of time.

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. Within the latter there are numerous sub-categories along the lines of size, material, ownership and type. This applies to all manner of objects, especially kalimbangoma and iginga figures. All members of the Bwami own one of these, which is usually cared for, oiled and kept by their wife. The higher the rank, the more impressive the figure. The members of Yananio and the lowest level of kindi own kalmibangoma figures, while the elite members of Kindi and the highest-ranking woman may own iginga (pl. maginga) pieces, which are the most coveted of all initiation pieces.

In general terms, Lega figures are used by members of the Bwami society, who commission the figure with a general description of how it should look (pose, material etc) but who leave the details to the carver. All figures tend to represent aspects of the ideal Lega male – a large forehead, a shaved head (sometimes with a cap) and a straight posture – and are endowed with the characteristics of a Bwami initiate: washed, shining and proud. Some figures are carved for the aesthetic of the ugly, used as cautionary tales for initiates. However, these cases are isolated: western art history approaches have been unable to read the cultural implications of Lega pieces as most of these were removed from their highly-specific context without recording of data concerning their use, name and function. It is thus uncommon to be able to identify sculptures as representing specific people or characters in Lega mythology or history.

This high-ranking ivory Bwami sculpture is either a kalimbangoma or iginga figure, which were commissioned by the two highest rankings of Bwami members. The unusual style is puzzling; there are few comparable pieces. This may therefore imply that it is an older piece and that it is the progenitor of the better-known styles of Lega statuary, or that it is a variant that characterises a little-known subgroup of the tradition. The identity of the woman is uncertain, as stated above, but the importance of the piece is unaffected. Small ivory figures of this sort are among the Lega’s most potent symbols, and they are treated with considerable reverence, only being seen by others upon the demise of the owner, when they may be displayed on his grave. This is an important, unusual and attractive piece of African art.

Further reading: Cameron, E. 2001. The Art of the Lega. UCLA Press. - (SP.116 (LSO))

 

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