This striking wooden figure was made by a master-carver of the Lega tribe, in what was once Zaire. It portrays a standing woman with short, slightly bent legs, a heart-shaped face, vestigial arms and a highly protuberant stomach. Her facial features are reductivist, with raised eyes, a T-bar nose/brow complex and a tiny incised mouth. Detailing is minimal throughout, thus attracting attention to the sculptor’s expert use of line. The piece is carved from a dark wood that has become glossy and patinated through continued handling and – probably – libations of oil and other sacrificial substances.
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 (figures). All members of the Bwami own one of these, which is usually cared for, oiled and kept by their wife.
Western art history approaches have often 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 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. It is uncommon to be able to identify sculptures as representing specific people in Lega mythology or history.
This piece is most similar to those given to village Bwami societies to denote their right to hold specific initiation ceremonies. In order to do this, a member of a neighbouring Bwami society of elevated rank send a representative to initiate a member of the village. They give a figure such as this to that person, who keeps it in trust for his village. Initiations cannot take place without it. It is a very important object, and is only displayed at the highest level of initiation: Lutumbo Iwa Kindi. This is a highly significant and interesting piece of African art, and an attractive addition to any collection of the genre.