Luba Sculpture of a Woman Kneeling on a Stool

SKU PF.4877
Circa

20th Century AD

Dimensions

22.75″ (57.8cm) high x 7.5″ (19.1cm) wide

Medium

Wood

Origin

Southeastern Congo

Gallery Location

UK


 

This exceptional carving of a female kneeling on a stool was made by the Luba people of what was once Zaire. It is an extremely sophisticated piece. The base is carved as a hollow drum-shaped stool, which has become eroded with age. The legs are short and slim, and tucked under the posterior with the feet facing upwards. The body is deep from front to back yet narrow from side to side, with a protuberant abdomen (perhaps indicating pregnancy), a button-like umbilicus, several panels of keloid scarifications and pointed yet pendulous breasts arranged in a double prominence from the upper thorax. The muscles of the back are rendered in low relief. Her arms are slim and tapered towards the wrists, and her hands are resting on each breast. Her neck is columnar and, unusually, rendered partially as a series of rings (reminiscent of Akan or Lagoons designs). The rendering of the face is superb, with a rounded brow, a pointed chin, closed almond-shaped eyes, delicate brows, a finely-carved nose and a sensitive mouth. The head is elongated, ending with a cruciform arrangement of straps decorated with incised and relief triangles. The patina is irregular and glossy, and unmistakable genuine.
The Luba people were once the major power in the Zairean region, with over a million people paying tribute to the descendants of King Kongolo Maniema (who founded the dynasty in 1585). They were particularly reliant upon fishing and industries such as metalworking, leading to their status as a primary node on an ever-expanding trade network that wound its way throughout West Africa and as far as the Indian Ocean. They expanded enormously during the 18th and 19th centuries, but were seriously impacted upon by slaving missions and the rise of the Ovimbudu people of Angola; they were eventually subsumed into the Belgian Congo Empire in the early 20th century. The nature of their relationship with the immediately proximate Hemba people is still something of a bone of contention in African art circles.

They were governed by a combination of divine kingship and rule by council; the king (Mulopwe) ruled through a set of social notables who were collectively known as Bamfumus. These both controlled the Balopwe or �clan kings�, who governed designated areas as symbolic sons of the king. Social harmony and memory was controlled through the Bambudye (or Mbudye) secret society, whose members are obliged to remember and recite the whole history of the Luba people from their foundation, often using �lukasa� boards as aides-memoire. The Mbudye tradition states that all rulers of the Luba Empire traced their ancestry to Kalala Ilunga, a mystical hunter credited with toppling the cruel ruler known as Nkongolo. This figure is also credited with the introduction of advanced iron forging techniques to the Luba peoples. Aristocratic status is attained by the ability to trace one�s lineage to a founding member of the Luba people; although western academia might dismiss most of the early stages as myth, Mbudye memory scholars consider then to be the essence of truth. 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 more than their masks, which are extremely rare and usually resemble the Kifwebe masks of the Songye group. Shrine paraphernalia such as staffs, headrests, bow stands, and royal seats are known, reflecting the divine status of the ruler and the elegant refinement of his court. Carvers display incredible flexibility in terms of their representation techniques, some of which are so distinctive that pieces can be attributed to individual artists. Mwadi � female incarnations of ancient kings � are a common characteristic of Luba art, and indeed the vast majority of known sculptures depict female rather than male figures. Women also play key roles in Luba creation myths, and are strongly associated with divination paraphernalia.

The use of stools is associated with elites in almost all African groups. While the identity of the person here depicted remains mysterious, therefore, it is likely to be either an elite personage (Mwadi) or a divinity/spirit associated with divination. This is a truly beautiful piece of African art and a credit to any collection.

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