LOS ANGELES, CALIF. — The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) will present “Shaping Power: Luba Masterworks from the Royal Museum for Central Africa,” the first exhibition to inaugurate its new African art gallery and related educational programming. The exhibition, on view July 7–January 5, explores the artistic traditions and emblems of power from the Luba Kingdom, one of the most influential in Central African history.
Co-organized with the Royal Museum for Central Africa (RMCA) in Belgium, a selection of rare and outstanding sculptures from the Luba people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo will be on view. Objects include figurative thrones, elegant scepters, royal cups, intricately carved headrests and ancestral figures, rarely seen in the United States and on view for the first time in Los Angeles.
The exhibition is curated by Dr Mary “Polly” Nooter Roberts, consulting curator for African art, LACMA, and professor of world arts and cultures at UCLA, in collaboration with co-curator, Dr Anne-Marie Bouttiaux, head of the ethnography division, RMCA.
The exhibition conveys the beauty and complexity of Luba art and culture and presents one of Africa’s remarkable sculptural and philosophical traditions. While many Luba works appear to have utilitarian purposes, they were imbued with spiritual attributes and esoteric wisdom. As treasures of kings, chiefs, titleholders and diviners, they also served as emissaries to create affiliations extending the realm. Wide emulation of Luba aesthetics and political rituals further enlarged their reach. These same objects were and continue to be memory devices, encoding the histories and precepts of Luba kingship.
The exhibition is organized thematically and explores the roles of sculpture in the investiture rites of a ruler, emphasizing how the works serve to transform an ordinary man into a sacred king; why Luba emblems depict women and how the guardian spirits of Luba kingship are attracted to female figures that embellish the insignia of male officeholders; how commemorative works from neighboring groups reflect the widely influential aesthetics and precepts of Luba royal practice; and how certain objects possess powers of healing and transformation.
As the most emblematic of Luba royal arts, two caryatid stools are the first objects in the exhibition. The works are supported by kneeling female figures and once served as the thrones of kings. The stools provide a first glimpse into the complex gendering of authority in Luba culture, for kings are represented by the women who surround, uphold and empower them.
Next, visitors will encounter a mask so acclaimed that it has become the logo of the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium. This work of art, which has never been lent to any institution before, may allude to the cultural hero who introduced political practices to Luba people — that is, the etiquette and precepts of royal bearing. The mask combines a supremely regal human face and the inward gaze of a divine being with a coiffure that suggests buffalo horns conveying stealth and strength.
The exhibition also features a finely rendered bowstand that served as a powerful receptacle of royal authority, a virtuoso investiture bowl supported by two figures called kiteya, and an ethereal water pipe graced by a serene female figure. Several works on display are by identifiable master hands. These include a kneeling bowl-bearing female figure by the celebrated artist known as the Buli Master, whose honorific Ngongo ya Chintu means “Father of Sculpted Things” and whose workshop was the first identified in Africa.
Two jewel-like headrests by the so-called Master of the Cascade Headdress are also on view, and were used as wooden pillows by high-ranking persons to protect elaborate hairstyles for which the Luba were celebrated. A memory board, or lukasa, on loan from a private collection, is made from wood and covered with beads. The Luba describe memory as a string of beads documenting events, people and places. This device is a library of Luba historical knowledge, encoding memories of the past to retell in the present. The colors and configurations of its beads prompt recitations of Luba royal precepts by court historians called “men of memory.”
To complement these historical Luba works, a contemporary installation titled “Congo: Shadow of the Shadow,” 2005, by Aimé Mpane has been borrowed from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art. A male figure formed from 4,652 matchsticks expresses the paradoxes of human fragility and strength as light plays against shadow, substance against ethereality — there results a gripping commentary on how power was reshaped during and since the years of Belgian colonial rule in the Congo.
LACMA is at 5905 Wilshire Boulevard, at Fairfax Avenue. For information, 323-857-6000 or www.lacma.org.