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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Archive : Lega Ivory Mask with Raffia Beard
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Lega Ivory Mask with Raffia Beard - PF.2849 (LSO)B
Origin: Democratic Republic of Congo
Circa: 20 th Century AD
Dimensions: 10.25" (26.0cm) high x 2.25" (5.7cm) wide
Collection: African
Medium: Ivory

Additional Information: Height Includes the Raffia Beard/ sold

Location: United States
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This highly stylised piece is an Idimu mask, the highest rank of authority of the Lega society’s Bwami society. It is a highly reductivist face, with a long face, a rounded jaw, a flat top to the head and a simplified face with hollow, rimmed eyes, a long nose and an oval, hollow mouth. The colour is dark, with light sport showing through on the elevated portions of the face. The outline of the jaw is marked by 9-10 round holes which serve as the attachments for a raffia beard that doubles the length of the mask.

The Lega people are amongst Africa’s best- known carvers and artists. Currently settled in the Kivu province of the eastern DCR, 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.

Their system of government is based along the lines of a gerontocracy; remaining power is 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 figures; 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 level of 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 an idimu mask, which is displayed, but has symbolic signifiance as the figurehead under which a collection of Bwami communities rally. It is the highest rank in being bearded and made of ivory – prominent members of the Bwami aspire to own such pieces, and may do so when they attain the appropriate authority and wisdom.

This mask has many of the characteristics that ushered in the most important Western artistic movements of the 20th century – primitivism, expressionism, cubism – but is also a testament to the long heritage of Lega society and art. It is also an attractive and powerful piece of carving that would grace any setting.

Cameron, E.L. Art of the Lega. Fowler Museum of Natural History, UCLA.

- (PF.2849 (LSO)B)


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