This impressive piece is a Mancala gaming board from the Luba tribe of Gabon and what was once Zaire. It comprises a long flat board with sixteen holes arranged in four rows of four. The board itself is undecorated save for the deep patina and use wear that particularly affects the most elevated parts of the piece. The handle is most ornate, however, and features a long “neck” surmounted by a traditionally rendered Luba head, with a peaked coiffure, large, open eyes and a wide mouth. The neck was clearly used for carrying the board, judging from the wear it has sustained.
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). Their wealth, which came from fishing and metalworking, made them ferocious traders across West Africa and as far as the Indian Ocean. They were seriously impacted upon by slaving missions and the rise of the Ovimbudu people of Angola, and were subsumed into the Belgian Empire in the early 20th century. They are very closely related to the immediately proximate Hemba people, especially in art terms.
They were governed by a divine king (Mulopwe) and a set of social notables who were collectively known as Bamfumus. The Balopwe or “clan kings” governed designated areas as symbolic sons of the Mulopwe. Social harmony and memory was controlled through the Bambudye (or Mbudye) secret society; aristocratic status is attained by the ability to trace one’s lineage to a founding member of the Luba people. 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, anthropomorphic shrine paraphernalia, divination pieces, and extensively decorated utilitarian and everyday items. Women play key roles in Luba creation myths, being strongly associated with divination (Katatora) and prestige paraphernalia. It is therefore little susprise that most anthropomorphic pieces bear the likenesses of women rather than men (unlike the Hemba).
As well as being well conceived and carved, the board has acquired a solid, glossy patina from considerable handling. This is an attractive piece of African art.