The Collection: a regional and typological approach

Central Africa

Click here for a detailed map of Central Africa in the 1800s.

In their splendid exhibition catalogue, Memory: Luba Art and the Making of History, based on extensive field studies, Mary Nooter Roberts and Allen F. Roberts have described a form of divination known as kashekesheke which employs the small sculpted figures known as kakishi (1996:178-185). The thousands of these little sculptures in public and private collections attest to their widespread use among the Luba and neighboring peoples. Kashekesheke is essentially a ritual means for communicating with the ancestors (bafu, literally "the dead") whose presence is believed to effect the welfare of the living. Hence, kashekesheke is a personal rite in which a troubled individual engages with a diviner, mbuki, whose techniques do not require spirit possession, to learn through the ritual the causes of his/her stress or misfortune. Although the diviner may be male or female, the kakishi are always female, since, for the Luba, "women are strong vessels of spiritual presence" (1997:182).

Figure 3:
h 5 3/4"

In preparing for the ritual, the kakishi is rubbed with aromatic leaves, invoking the diviner's consulting spirit. The diviner will be informed of the client's concerns. Seated on a mat, they will each grasp the kakishi with their first two fingers. "Thus the divining instrument creates a bridge between diviner and client, linking the diviner's insight to the client's experience" (1996:182). The kakishi, as all ritual artifacts, is an extension of the diviner's spiritual power. Questions concerning the cause of the client's problems will be addressed to the ancestors "who act as agents of memory" (1996: 183). The kakishi remains motionless until the correct question has been asked. Then, if the circling motion is counterclockwise, which produces the sound "sheke-sheke," a positive response is indicated, creating, according to the Roberts, an enclosure, "a space of representation," where the human and spirit worlds meet. Negation is indicated by the object's movement of tipping forward and backward. The process continues until diviner and client are prepared to discuss the client's problems in light of the responses conveyed through the motions of the kakishi.

Figure 4:
h 5"

The sculptures are usually three to six inches, often depicting elaborate coiffures. In the figure above, beads have been added by the diviner. As the Roberts observe, beads are not simply decorative. They can signify "place" of personage, title, rank, or role. They are, therefore, "cognitive" cues to the Luba viewer, "mnemonic devices," for remembering and discernment (Roberts and Roberts 1996:90). Marc Felix noted to Maurer that this kakishi is a beautiful example of the Luba Shankadi, Mwanza sub-style (5 January 1987). In contrast, fig. 4 is distinctive with its Janus head, gracefully elongated neck, and the extension of the shoulders. The composition in its totality is superbly balanced, consisting of a variety of geometric forms: the circular base, U-shaped body, horizontal thrust of the shoulders, long vertical line of the neck, softly triangular head, and the delineation of the face in an almost minimalist fashion. The only suggestion of surface ornamentation is the cross mark that appears on the chest. It is the creation of a skilled carver gifted with artistic imagination.

Figure 5:
H 5 1/2"

The Songye peoples to the north of the Luba share a common linguistic heritage, as well as cultural and historical connections as is evident in the use of friction divination devices known as katatora. Figs. 2 and 5 provide excellent examples of Songye artistry. Fig. 2, collected by General Campion in 1924 (Felix, 12 November 1987) is the more typical of Songye Kalebwa style. The protruding mouth, triangular nose, and coffee bean eyes are similar to many highly expressionistic Songye mask forms (kifwebe). The large oval body of fig. 5 is in sharp contrast to the rectangular body of fig. 8 and so too the minimal and beautiful depiction of the face. Nonetheless, the face is clearly recognizable as Songye.

One can see the influence of Songye style in another katatora that comes from the Nsapo-sapo people who were part of the Songye Beneki clan to the west (fig. 6). According to Francois Neyt, O.S.B., katatora were usually carved from "a very hard wood (the kibekwasa), whose emetic sap brings to mind the divinatory instrument's purpose: `to make the truth be told'" (1981:264). Carvings from this group are exceedingly rare; and what is unusual about this katatora is the addition of thin arms, bent at the side of the torso, ending with small hands with finely incised fingers, and the suggestion of breasts. According to Jean Willy Mestach, the coiffure is characteristic of the Kalonji (Luba-Kasai), and he gives its presumed region as Kananga (1985:135)

Figure 6: h 6 3/4"

Another type of friction oracle is found among a cluster of peoples in central Zaire to the west of the Luba and Songye: the Kuba, Wongo, and Lele. The Kuba are a federation of approximately eighteen peoples to whom their neighbors, the Luluwa and Luba gave the name "Kuba." Their history dates to about the sixteenth century (Vansina 1960; 1963). By the mid-nineteenth century the Kuba had established a kingdom of regional importance in the area limited by the rivers Sankuru, Kasai, and Luluwa. The Wongo and Lele originally came from "the north" with the Kuba, subsequently settling and resettling in small villages along and between the Loange and Kasai Rivers often having to relocate in the area due to the intrusions of the Pende and later the Tchokwe peoples. It is, therefore, to be expected that there are similarities in artistry and object types among the peoples of the lower Kasai.

Figure 7: L 11"

Figure 8: L 9 1/2"

The Maurer Collection includes a number of divination artifacts known as itombwa. Fig. 7 is an example of a Kuba itombwa shaped in the image of a warthog with a long upturned nose. It was brought to Belgium by General Campion in 1902 (Felix, 12 November 1985). The finally incised surface of the body and legs is typical of Kuba artistry with its skill in juxtaposing intricate geometric patterns on the surface of carved objects such as cups and boxes. One finds this same rich patterning in the bead and cowrie shell masks created for Kuba kings. The wooden "rubber" is bound to the object base with raffia fibre. The friction, that is, the smooth movement or sticking of the rubber, is created by the addition of specially prepared root juices and oil as it is used by the diviner. Traces of red camwood powder may still be seen, typical of the finishing touch on almost all Kuba carvings. As we noted above with reference to the Luba kakishi and Songye katatora, the rubbing oracle is an extension of the diviner's spiritual power. It may be used only by one capable of discerning the meaning of the movement of the rubber and the communication of spiritual power in the rite.

The influence of the Kuba on Wongo style and object type is nicely illustrated in fig. 8, another itombwa identical in subject and similar in surface ornamentation. While well carved, it does not have the power of the Kuba piece. The head and body lack a continuity of form and the animal stands on rather stiff legs. Another Wongo itombwa, fig. 9, is a far more successful carving. It appears to image a dog or crocodile? The suggestion of a dog's collar may be noted in the series of designs about the neck. Dogs, as warthogs, were associated with the ability to scent or root out the quarry, disclose the hunted, as divination seeks to identify the agent or cause of misfortune, controversy, and suffering. The graceful line of the carving from head to tail is enhanced by the finely incised lines along the body to the tip of the tail, and others which curve down the legs, giving the piece "momentum, grace and energy" (Felix, 18 February 1988). The rubbing disc is attached by fibre raffia running through a hole in the disc, the rubbing having created a rich patina on the hard wood from which the object was carved. Another itombwa by a Lele carver is illustrated in fig. 10. While similar in subject to the Wongo dog, there is a disjunction between the body and the head and tail, although the head is rather well conceived.

Another more interesting itombwa by a Lele carver is illustrated in fig. 11. It combines anthropomorphic and zoomorphic elements--a human head joined to the body and tail of a quadruped. As in the Kuba and Wongo carvings, the surface ornamentation consists of a variety of geometric patterns further distinguishing body and legs. The human face is conceived as a flat surface on which closely set almond shaped eyes, a long triangular nose, and narrow mouth are imposed. Scarfication marks run down the sides of the head from eyes to the U-shaped ears. A similar itombwa (fig. 12) by a carver of the Ding people, who live to the south of the Wongo and Lele but within the Kasai region, illustrates the prevalence of an object type of ritual artifact but also clear stylistic differences in the depiction of the human head and face. Facial features are more carefully modeled. The rubbing stub is made of raffia rather than wood. All of these itombwa probably date in the period of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century when contact with European colonial administrators, soldiers, entrepreneurs, and missionaries was at its height.

Figure 9: L 13 1/2"

Figure 10: L 11"

Figure 11: L 11"

Figure 12: L 13"

Click here for more.

Click here to go back.