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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Miscellaneous : Lega Ivory Figure
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Lega Ivory Figure - DA.690 (LSO)
Origin: Congo
Circa: 1850 AD to 1920 AD
Dimensions: 6" (15.2cm) high
Collection: African
Medium: Ivory
Condition: Extra Fine


Location: UAE
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Description
This beautifully patinated anthropomorphic ivory figure was carved by an artist belonging to the Lega group in what was once Zaire. It is a classically reductivist rendering of the human form, with a conical, flat-based body surmounted by an oval head with a broad brow and a pointed chin. The eyes are traditional coffee-bean shape, the noise triangular and broad, the lips parted. The apex of the head bears a real cowrie, attached to the figure with a black, adhesive substance which may have been believed to have magical properties. The surface of the body is decorated with transverse lines of incised dots-and-circles, and a further line of three up the forehead. The surface is darkened to a golden hue with age and use.

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.

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 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 kalimbangoma (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 highest standards – those in the ranks known as Yananio or Kindi – own ivory figures, of which this is a truly stunning example.

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 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.

Only the elites were able to afford pieces such as this. It is thus extremely rare and unusual, as well as being a striking work of aesthetic skill. This is an exceptional piece of African art.

- (DA.690 (LSO))

 

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