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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Masterpieces of African Art : Lega Wooden Bwami Society Sculpture
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Lega Wooden Bwami Society Sculpture - PF.2355 (LSO)
Origin: Southeastern Congo
Circa: 20th th Century AD
Dimensions: 12.625" (32.1cm) high x 4" (10.2cm) wide
Catalogue: V11
Collection: African
Style: Lega
Medium: Wood

Location: UAE
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This dynamically-modelled figure was made by a carver of the Lega group in what was once Zaire. It is an exceptional example, for while most Lega pieces are stylised, this particular piece has taken geometric reductivism to an astonishing level. It is a standing figure of indeterminate sex, with a columnar body centrally divided by a ridge that splits at the chest and loins to form up- and down-ward facing triangular facets. The legs are sectorial, the arms vestigial, with intercutting planes denoting their structure. The head is approximately rounded, with cut-away sections leaving a heart-shaped face bearing incised eyes and a long, thin nose that divides the face in two. The wood is light in terms of colour and weight, with good handling gloss. This is a remarkable example of the genre.

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, especially kalimbangoma (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.

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. 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 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.

The fact that this piece is made of wood indicates that it does not pertain to the highest levels of Lega society. However, the sculptural quality is astounding, and one may surmise that dynamic innovation was more likely to occur in less expensive materials. This is a triumph of method over material, an astounding object.

- (PF.2355 (LSO))


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