This unusual ivory figure is a kalimbangoma or iginga sculpture from the Bwami secret society, the central foundation for social structures in the Lega tribal group. It is carved in the likeness of a seated woman with an antero-posteriorly compressed conical head, a very long torso, short, crossed legs, slim arms and protuberant, pointed breasts. Detailing is limited beneath the head, though the enormous elongation of the left (and probably right) hands should be noted. The face is rendered with coffee-bean eyes, a short, sharp nose (unusual for Lega sculptures) and precisely-defined lips, all beneath brows cut into the polished dome and point of the forehead. The item is unpainted, and has a glossy patina from repeated handling and – probably – oil libations.
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. In all tribal groups, ivory objects are reserved for the elite. There can therefore be no doubt as to the significance of this item. The precise format of piece is unrepresented in the standard work on the subject (Cameron 2001). Firstly, the seated posture is uncommon – Lega figures of this sort are usually standing with straight or flexed legs. The conical head form is not unknown, but it is unusual for it to be so thin from front to back. The elongated hand(s) are unusual but may refer to the Lega figural group kasangala – figures with an upraised (and often grossly oversized) arm, which are designed to symbolise Kindi’s prerogative to arbitrate community problems, based upon the saying: “What shoots up straight; I have arbitrated Igulu (the sky); I have arbitrated something big” (op. cit. 2001: 160).
The person depicted cannot be identified on the basis of current data, and is probably a mythological character from Lega folklore. 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.
Cameron, E. 2001. The Art of the Lega. UCLA Press.