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The art of the Luba people
Art is an expression very well developed in the Luba culture. The outward form and iconography of Luba objects are directly connected to their effectiveness. How an object looks influences how well it works; and to be considered effective, an object must function to protect, promote, and heal individuals and communities.
Most of these objects were created by people living along the Lualaba River and around the lakes of the Upemba Depression, or among related people to the east in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There's a lot of examples of their mastery in pottery, objects crafted from iron (axes, bows and spears), staffs made of wood with carvings and parts covered in copper, neck rests, statuary and many other objects- including ceremonial masks and pendant made from animal teeth, which were strung on cords with beads and amulets. The pendants are portraits, likenesses, of certain revered ancestors, who are named and honored by the Luba. The owners rubbed the figures with oil in homage to these ancestors, creating a smooth, rich color and a very smooth surface.
A notable artform of the Luba people is the Mwadi, an object that was used to represent the male ancestors in their female incarnations of the ancestral kings.
Many objects of Luba art appear functional, but their utilitarian purposes have been replaced or augmented by symbolic purposes.
The Luba are also famous for their statuary, in particular their neck rests and stools. These sculptures usually depict caryatid figures, and sometimes animal motifs combined (e.g. an antelope with a female figure). Almost all of them include the female form either on top or supporting objects like spears, bowls, axes, etc.
The female figure holding her breasts is the most common motif in their art, and this has multiple levels of meaning. It symbolizes respect and nurturing, and the role of women as mothers and creators of life. These also often show signs of Luba identity such as marks of beauty in the form of scarification. These are also important because the Luba trace their lineage through the female line; they believe only women are strong enough to guard the profound secrets of royalty, and it is within their breasts that they protect the royal prohibitions upon which sacred kingship depends. They explain that only women, who have the potential to become pregnant and produce new life, are strong enough to hold powerful spirits and the secret knowledge associated with them. Because of the emphasis on women, Luba objects were usually the property of men of noble status. The artists who made them were also men, trained in blacksmithing and woodcarving.
The concept of memory is central to their art. According to some scholars, some of their intricate art works were designed to bring forth memories of their past, a form of symbolic coded script to aid in the preserving of information and made specifically for recalling the history and knowledge of the Luba. They basically map their memory through stools, staffs, and other visual devices. Since precolonial times, the recounting of history has been a specific and highly valued form of intellectual activity, and visual representations have been the primary vehicle for the making of Luba histories of kingship and political relations.
They developed one of the most complex and brilliant mnemonic systems for recording royal history, king lists, migrations and family genealogies, the Lukasa memory board. These hourglass-shaped wooden tablets are covered with multicolored beads, shells and bits of metal, or are incised or embossed with carved symbols. The colors and configurations of these beads or ideograms aid in the recollection of important people, places, things, relationships and events as court historians narrate the origins of Luba authority. A lukasa serves as an archive for the topographical and chronological mapping of political histories and other data sets. These memory boards are found in many museums around the world.
Staffs of office are some of the most plentiful objects of Luba royal insignia. They are the most diverse in iconography, because their ownership was considerably more democratic, as caryatid stools were restricted to highest-ranking political offices. These staffs could belong to diviners, Mbudye members, title-holders and territorial chiefs. No two staffs are alike: each one of these works of art are unique encodings of the histories, genealogies and migrations of the owner's particular family, lineage or chiefdom. These details act as cues that assist narrators in politically motivated recollections of the past.
Sculpted caryatid stools serve symbolically as seats of power and sites of memory for deceased kings and chiefs rather than serve as places to sit.
They are metaphorical, not literal, seats of kingship. The design of these seats of leadership were either abstract or figurative. Those stools that incorporate female caryatids give expression to their idea of the female body as a spiritual receptacle that supports divine kingship. The aesthetic refinement of the female body through elaborate skin ornamentation serves as a metaphor for the civilization and refinement that Luba rulers disseminate within society.
Like lukasas, Luba stools and staffs are mnemonic mapping devices. They reflect and simulate place memory, because they refer to sacred sites and aid in the narration of political histories through their forms. Luba caryatid stools embody important rulers of the past. When a king died, his royal residence (kitenta) became the site where his spirit was incarnated by a Mwadi. This woman was possessed by the spirit of the king and inherited his insignia, dignitaries and wives. The succeeding king established a new residence, and throughout his reign he offered tribute to the mwadi of his predecessor. In that way, a caryatid stool became a concrete manifestation of this king's metaphysical "seat."
Another type of objects they are renown for, are wood or iron bow stands. They might have begun as practical objects, but they are also potent reminders of Mbidi Kiluwe, the culture hero who was a masterful hunter and blacksmith. Like other Luba regalia, bow stands were used in secret rituals and rarely publicly displayed. They were guarded in a special building by female attendants, who provided prayers and sacrifices to them. When they were not being used they were kept beside the bed of the ruler, to guide his dreams and protect him from mystical and human adversaries. Iron bow stands have anthropomorphic references, with hourglass-shaped torsos very much like the shape of lukasa memory boards. Wooden bow stands often have full female figures that refer to founders of royal lineages (Bevidye). The metal shaft of the bow stands serve to convey the king's strength, and when planted in the ground, they speak to his origins and power.