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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Lega : Lega Mask
Lega Mask - DB.023 (LSO)
Origin: Democratic Republic of Congo
Circa: 20 th Century AD
Dimensions: 8.75" (22.2cm) high
Collection: African Art
Medium: Wood and Hair
Condition: Extra Fine

Location: United States
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This stylised mask is a lukwakongo initiation mask, and was carved by a member of the Lega group. It depicts a highly reductivist face that is somewhat reminiscent of that of an owl; the forehead and the nose stand proud of the rest of the face, which is excavated to provide a sharp relief and tone contrast. The bridge of the nose is long and sharp, with laterally projecting angular flanges towards the tip. The eyes are rounded domes with dark, contrasting slits incised into the surface. The mouth comprises a very similar, slit-like format. The contrast between the elevated and depressed areas is heightened by the handling patina on the former, and the use of kaolin on the latter.

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 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.

Their system of government is based along the lines of a gerontocracy; remaining power is 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 they 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 on 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 figures; for our purposes, there are five categories of mask.

Each of the five categories of mask – lukwakongo, lukungu, idimu, muminia and kayamba – pertains to a different level of Bwami rank. Rather than wearable items, they are representations of faces or expressions of concepts that have nothing to do with concealment of identity (the true meaning of the term “mask”) and everything to do with rank, narrative or function within the Bwami ceremonial system. They can be piled up, scattered about, displayed on fences, worn on the arm or forehead or simply carried in the hands. The current piece is a lukwakongo mask, a bearded representation of a stylised ideal man. They are awarded to initiates upon completion of their basic requirements for the Bwami society (Lutumbo Iwa Yananio), and he keeps it until he grades up to the Kindi level, upon which it is traded for an ivory mask. The symbolism is designed to invoke the pursed, disapproving lips of the teacher and the hatless state of the failed initiate. Some models are decorated with “scarifications”; their fresh state is designed to remind the owner that youth is fleeting, as scarifications mellow and grow dim with age. They were usually worn on the arm.

This mask has many of the characteristics that ushered in the most important artistic movements of the 20th century – primitivism, expressionism, cubism – but is also a testament to the long heritage of Lega society and art. It is also an attractive and powerful piece of carving that would grace any setting.

Cameron, E.L. Art of the Lega. Fowler Museum of Natural History, UCLA.

- (DB.023 (LSO))


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