This enigmatic object is a set of bellows made by the Shankadi group. It is essentially a column of wood, oblong in section, with a pair of oval chambers – one on each side – and a handle bearing a polished human head as a finial. The chambers would originally have had leather bags attached to them, attached to a pair of handles that would have been pumped to pass air through the central column to superheat a fire or forge. The handle is beautifully carved into the likeness of a male (?) head, atop a long columnar neck. The face is impassive and set low on the head, which is elongated with a bare, domed forehead and a distinctive multi-tiered “cascade” coiffure. As is common with Hemba, Luba and Shankadi pieces, the face is very impassive and serene, and the patina of the piece suggests long-term usage.
The Shankadi are essentially a subgroup of the Luba peoples of Zaire. They have a social system based around a hereditary chief known as a Mulohwe (who is presumably answerable to the Luba overlord, although the exact nature of their relationship is somewhat obscure. Over a million people pay tribute to the descendants of King Kongolo Maniema (who founded the dynasty in 1585), the king of the Luba. 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 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 (Katatora) and prestige paraphernalia. For this reason they may be carved into headrests (to capture dreams from the other world while the owner slept), stools, and prestige staffs (representing the spirit of deceased kings, carried in a woman’s body). The Shankadi are somewhat similar, although their art can often be differentiated on the basis of a cascade coiffure, which is highly exaggerated in a trefoil design by the aptly-named “Master of the Cascade”. It is carved in the classical style, which is distinct from the Sungu (more ornate) and SW (more reductivist) styles. Although there is no specific mention of a tendency towards metalworking, the sources are full of references to bellows such as this example.
This is a striking and attractive piece of African art.