This appealing ivory figure is a kalimbangoma or iginga sculpture from the Bwami secret society, the central foundation for social structures in the Lega tribal group. It is carved in the likeness of a standing woman with a conical head, powerful legs, an elongated trunk and nugatory arms. Detailing is limited beneath the head, and includes lines demarcating the tops of the thighs, bracelets on each wrist, schematic breasts and a pair of relief neck rings. The face is melancholy in overall mien, with coffee-bean eyes, a medium-length, flared nose, defined cheeks, high brows and an unusually large-lipped mouth pursed in a moue. The apex of the head narrows to a point, an unusual feature in Lega statuary. The item is unpainted, and has a glossy patina from repeated handling and – probably – oil libations.
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 distinct 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 humans 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 upon 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 and iginga 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. The members of Yananio and the lowest level of kindi own kalmibangoma figures, while the elite members of Kindi and the highest-ranking woman may own iginga (pl. maginga) pieces, which are the most coveted of all initiation pieces.
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 aspects of 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. However, these cases are isolated: 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. It is thus uncommon to be able to identify sculptures as representing specific people or characters in Lega mythology or history.
This piece is unusual in its overall form. The face is unusually expressive, and the head is far more exaggerated than is usual; a slight peak is often found, but full points of this sort are not usual (see Cameron 2001). It is possible that it represents an individual with intentional cranial deformation, which has been attested in other groups such as the Mangbetu, but not for the Lega. This is a superb example of a high-ranking ivory Bwami figure. It is either a kalimbangoma or iginga figure, which were commissioned by the two highest rankings of Bwami members. In all tribal groups, ivory objects are reserved for the elite. There can therefore be no doubt as to the significance of this item. The person depicted cannot be identified on the basis of current data, and is probably a mythological character from Lega folklore. Small ivory figures of this sort are among the Lega’s most potent symbols, and they are treated with considerable reverence, only being seen by others upon the demise of the owner, when they may be displayed on his grave. This is an important, unusual and attractive piece of African art.
Cameron, E. 2001. The Art of the Lega. UCLA Press.