This remarkable bicephalous piece is a kalimbangoma or iginga sculpture from the Bwami secret society, the central foundation for social structures in the Lega tribal group. It depicts a very serene female figure that has retained the curved form of the tusk from which she was carved. Her legs are very strong, supporting an elongated torso with the hands resting on the stomach. The long axes of the figure are decorated with incised dots that also run across the top of the breasts. The head is elongated and intense in expression, with a long nose, coffee-bean eyes, a nugatory mouth and a line of incised dots defining the perimeter of the face. Unusually, it also has two incised lines (presumably denoting tattoos or scarifications) on each cheek. It is probable that the exact geographical origin of this piece could be pinpointed, as these marks are very specific to certain carvers or villages. This head is surmounted by another, almost identical head which flows seamlessly into the first, tapering yet further with the contour of the tusk. The item is unpainted, and has a glossy patina from repeated handling and – probably – oil libation; the colour of the piece varies between the recessed and protuberant sections. This rare and important piece represents one of several multi-headed or Janus forms for which the Lega are known. The significance of the piece is discussed below.
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 distinct 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 humans 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 upon 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 and iginga 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 members of Yananio and the lowest level of kindi own kalmibangoma figures, while the elite members of Kindi and the highest-ranking woman may own iginga (pl. maginga) pieces, which are the most coveted of all initiation pieces.
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 aspects of 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. However, these cases are isolated: 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. It is thus uncommon to be able to identify sculptures as representing specific people or characters in Lega mythology or history.
This is a superb example of a high-ranking ivory Bwami figure. It is either a kalimbangoma or iginga figure, which were commissioned by the two highest rankings of Bwami members. However, the form is both rare and desirable. Multi-headed and Janus figures are deeply entrenched in Lega culture, and are accompanied by extensive symbolism. The most famous example is the Sakimatwematwe figure, which can have up to eight heads and is associated with elephant hunters’ vigilance in spotting his quarry as well as alerting others for the help he needs to subdue it. Two- and four-faced Janus figures are associated with the Bwami qualities of vigilance and perception, which are required in the resolution of social problems. Both Sakimatwematwe and the latter forms are usually made of wood. High-status ivory figures of two (usually) headed figures, however, often look in the same direction and are instead associated with the highest levels of Bwami where success is based upon the support of others – usually a sponsor, teacher or spouse. This explains why sexual characteristics are usually muted or indeed absent in such figures. The interdependence of everything is a major part of fully understanding the teachings of Bwami, and this is therefore an important piece of Lega social tradition.
Small ivory figures of this sort are among the Lega’s most potent symbols, and they are treated with considerable reverence, only being seen by others upon the demise of the owner, when they may be displayed on his grave. This is an important, unusual and attractive piece of African art.
Further reading: Cameron, E. 2001. The Art of the Lega. UCLA Press.