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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Masterpieces of African Art : Luba Terracotta Sculpture of a Kneeling Woman Holding a Bowl
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Luba Terracotta Sculpture of a Kneeling Woman Holding a Bowl - PF.4441 (LSO)
Origin: Southeastern Congo
Circa: 18th th Century AD to 20th th Century AD
Dimensions: 9.5" (24.1cm) high
Collection: African
Medium: Terracotta

Location: UAE
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This intriguing terracotta sculpture is an Mboko divination figure from the Luba cultural group of what was once Zaire. It is rendered as a kneeling female figure with a complex coiffure, holding a ceramic vessel on her lap as if proffering it. The body is a symphony of curves, the limbs elegant tendrils and the torso a solid monolithic block. Detailing is largely rejected in favour of line and presence; exceptions include the highly pointed breasts, the tiny eyes and nugatory nose/mouth, and the elegant triple-wave of hair on the apex of the head. The vessel she holds is so perfectly rendered that it is probably a direct copy of one that was commonly used in Luba society. The clay is extremely dark, probably reflecting repeated libations.

The Luba people were once the major power in this region, with over a million people paying tribute to the descendants of King Kongolo Maniema (who founded the dynasty in 1585). 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 extremely 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 (Kubuta) paraphernalia, such as the current piece.

Mboko figures are named for the vessel they carry, to which they play a purely secondary role. The figure recalls the first diviner, named Mijibu wa Kalenga, who used such a device to help found the Luba charter of kingship in the seventeenth century. Even today the figures are used to validate kingship; the vessels are filled with sacred chalk, which symbolises purity and renewal. The practitioners of this craft are thought of as descendants of Mijubu, and they act as factotums for individuals, family groups and even chiefdoms, answering questions about problems both minor and major. The diviners consult lesser spirits, (bafu), who are the spirits of deceased ancestors, for assistance with domestic issues and village life. If the problem is more serious, the diviner will consult greater spirits (bavidye) which live in the natural environment and who can prognosticate about the welfare of far greater numbers of people. The diviner usually goes into a trance state to communicate in this manner, using a figure such as this one to act as his “interpreter”. It is activated with a magical charge (bijimba) that makes it a spiritually sensitive object, and the mouthpiece for spirituous guidance.

The dark matter covering this piece is the bijimba, which would have been added to by the addition of other substances (now lost) to the vessel. This is a highly significant piece of magical paraphernalia, and – being made of ceramic – an exceptional example. - (PF.4441 (LSO))


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