This beautiful ivory bust is a kalimbangoma or iginga sculpture from the Bwami secret society, the central foundation for social structures in the Lega tribal group. It is carved in the likeness of a human face and elongated neck, ending in a ringed base decorated with cross-hatching. The head is essentially oval, cut-away at the front to construct the concave face beneath arched, rounded brows. The features are unusual within the remit of Lega art, with a long, broad and flat nose joined to the brows, and distinct cheeks carved into the profile of the face. The eyes are carved into the likeness of cowrie shells, prestige items – and indeed money – for many tribes in this area. There is also a single (real) cowrie shell attached to the apex of the head with black resin. These items, which are traded from the distant Indian Ocean, have a further significance for the piece, which is discussed below. The item is unpainted, but has a superb glossy patina from repeated handling and – probably – oil libations.
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.
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. 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. It is uncommon to be able to identify sculptures as representing specific people or characters in Lega mythology or history.
This piece is a superb example of a high-ranking ivory Bwami figure. Without context it is not possible to ascertain whether it is a kalimbangoma or iginga figure, but the quality of the carving would seem to suggest the latter – artefacts belonging to the very highest ranks of Bwami. This particular piece is interesting in the repeated use of real and carved cowrie shells as eyes and adornment. Cowries function as money, and are thus high-status, luxury items; the use of these items as eyes might therefore imply an aspirational sentiment on the behalf of the carver or the person who commissioned the piece. They are also used to decorate the initiation hats of recent Bwami initiates, and the presence of a cowrie on the top of the piece’s head suggests that it represents a member of Bwami. Busts and heads 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 and attractive piece of African art.
Cameron, E. 2001. The Art of the Lega. UCLA Press.