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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Lega : Lega Lukungu Ivory Mask
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Lega Lukungu Ivory Mask - PF.4938 (LSO)
Origin: Democratic Republic of Congo
Circa: 20 th Century AD
Dimensions: 5.625" (14.3cm) high x 3.75" (9.5cm) wide
Collection: African
Medium: Ivory

Location: United States
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This serene ivory mask is a miniature masterpiece from the Lega group, of what was once Zaire. Despite its small size, it is a highly significant piece of social culture as well as a beautiful artwork in its own right. Roughly oval in shape, the mask has a high, smooth forehead that is cut away to produce a flat/concave face that is halved by along, thin nose that almost reaches the nugatory incised mouth. The outline of the face is demarcated by a line of incised dots that produce a heart shape, arching high over the coffee-bean eyes and passing around to join the lower lip at the bottom of the mask. The piece is exceptionally dark in colour, a combination of age, handling and libations with substances such as oil. It has been pierced dorsally, presumably for display.

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; 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 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 superb example of a lukungu mask, small ivory masks that can only be owned by Bwami members who have attained the rank of Lutumbo Iwa Kindi (Kindi is the highest of the five ranks). They are not worn, merely oiled, carried about and displayed. The piercings on the back may denote how it was attached to a tree, fence or other locals for the purposes of exhibition. They are placed on the grave of the owner, and then inherited by the oldest son. Their significance is so great that initiates to this rank are not given an explanation of its purpose, the assumption being that they already have the knowledge within themselves.

This is an exceptionally beautiful and important piece of African art, and a credit to any collection.

Further reading: Cameron, E. 2001. The Art of the Lega. UCLA Press. - (PF.4938 (LSO))


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