by Peter Walsh
"MEMORY: Luba Art and the Making of History," one of the largest and most important exhibitions of African art ever to appear in the Boston area, will be on view at the Davis Museum and Cultural Center from February 5 through June 7, 1998. Organized by The Museum for African Art in New York City, this critically acclaimed exhibition of exceptionally beautiful artworks explores for the first time in an American museum exhibition the intricate and fascinating culture of the Luba of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire). More than 80 important and beautiful objects are included in the show.
Since it opened in New York City in February 1996, MEMORY has received enormous popular and critical praise. The New York Times described it as "everything an exhibition ought to be. Visually riveting and built on a theme as philosophically complex as it is poetic, it has the pace and pull of an unfolding epic... MEMORY... brings to vivid life an art that is both a wonder of formal invention... and a sovereign vehicle for profound ideas."
MEMORY will include standing figures, staffs of office, ceremonial weapons, masks, divining tools and amulets as well as fine examples of lukasas, or Luba "memory boards," all of which the Luba used as elaborate visual symbols to record their cultural memories, histories, traditions, and royal lineages. The show and its accompanying catalogue are the culmination of a decade of intense and path-breaking research and study by its curator, Dr. Mary Nooter Roberts. In learning to understand the lukasa and its uses, along with the other memory arts of the Luba, visitors to the exhibition will gain insight not only into an important African culture, but the role memory and history play in all human societies.
A rich and intricate culture
The Luba are a central African people who live in what is now the Shaba province of southeastern Congo (formerly Zaire). Archaeologists trace their cultural origins to the 7th century in the vast savannahs, rolling hills, and scrub forests of the region. Over the centuries, the Luba developed long-distance trade, learned to smelt iron, and exploited the natural resources of the river. By the 17th century, Luba society had evolved into a kingdom with an elaborate and refined court culture, intricate rituals, and a brilliant body of oral history, court poetry, and visual arts.
Luba influence extended from the Luba Heartland, an area between the Lomani and Lualaba Rivers, over a wide area of other peoples and cultural groups, creating a sphere of influence that Belgian colonists misleadingly described as an "empire." The glorious royal regalia and rituals that surrounded the Heartland king deeply impressed other local leaders, who were eager to attach themselves to the Luba and share in their rich culture.
European exploitation of the Congo region starting in the nineteenth century, annexation of the country by Belgium in 1908, and the post-colonial troubles of Zaire caused the Luba kingdoms to decline. Yet much of the Luba royal culture survives to this day. The extraordinary refinement of Luba figurative art helped make it among the first forms of African art to be appreciated by Western collectors and artists and much of it has been preserved in museums and private collections.
The works in MEMORY, from collections in Africa, the United States, and Europe, were lent by such institutions as the Seattle Art Museum; the Linden-Museum, Stuttgart, Germany; the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution; the University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania; and the University of the Witwatersrand Art Galleries, Johannesburg, South Africa.
Part of the exhibition explores the changes in the meaning of these objects now that they are largely in the treasuries of western museums and private collectors, rather than in those of Luba-related chiefs. Today, the exhibition organizers explain, these objects reflect the histories of their new owners, demonstrating, like other Luba arts, that memory is not a passive repository of the mind, but social process itself, one that proves that history is always in the making.
Intricate system of creating and recording history
At the peak of Luba influence, 13 Luba kings reigned over a wide area of Central Africa with the support of dignitaries and client chiefs who shared in their rituals and regalia. A secret association known as Mbudye preserved and celebrated the principles of Luba kingship, which were based on lineages traced to the founding ancestors.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Mbudye members created rituals and invented devices that assisted the Luba in remembering their history. With the help of the lukasa or memory board, Mbudye historians were trained to relate family lineages and the key events in the royal family's history.
At the heart of both Luba culture and the exhibition, the lukasa is a small carved wooden panel richly encrusted with iron pins and beads. The patterns of the lukasa can be "read" by Mbudye interpreters as the coded history of the Luba kings. The interpretation of lukasas varies according to the circumstances prevailing at the time of the reading, so the past, in Luba culture, is not fixed but changes and evolves over time. Although the Luba did not have a conventional writing system, their system of visual symbols also converts everyday objects, clothing, art objects, even the human body into historic records.
A special role for women
Beauty, for the Luba, is not innate but is created over time. The female body, for example, is a kind of canvas which is perfected through art. Complex coiffures and elaborate patterns of body scarifications are signs of beauty and civilization and also encode a woman's place both in Luba society and in Luba history. These symbols are recorded as well in Luba sculpted figures of women such as those included in MEMORY.
Women in Luba society also played special roles as ambassadors, priestesses, and political advisors. In Luba culture, only the bodies of women (not men) were considered strong enough to contain and protect the powerful spirits and sacred knowledge of the Luba kings. After his death, each Luba king was reincarnated as a "Mwadi"ã a woman who inherited his residence, titles, and symbols.
Symbols of history and power
In Luba memory devices, kings are represented by anvil-shaped iron pins that symbolize the royal association with the technology of iron making, once a closely guarded secret. Luba kings are "forged" in a special ritual at their enthronement. Luba royal emblems of power include such iron and steel objects as axes, knives, spears, bells, bows and arrows, and iron hammer anvils. Decorative patterns on staffs, figures, textiles, and other objects also are symbolic allusions to royal power and Luba history. Beautiful in their own right, such objects are also potent symbols and rich records of the past.
The presentation of history in Luba society is always a political act, and the symbols of memory are interpreted differently depending on the context of their interpretation. MEMORY points out that, to the Luba, history is not fixed and permanent, but is organic and grows and changes over time. As Holland Cotter wrote in his New York Times review, "the Luba approach to history, after all, resembles our own, with its hierarchies and inequities, its dynamic play of truth and experience, and its effort to carve something noble and permanent from the flux of time. Some of the results embodied in Luba art ã as in our ownã are puzzling and contradictory. Many have a breadth and harmony that makes for delight. And it is delight that rules, from start to finish, in this memorable show."
The exhibition was organized by The Museum for African Art, New York, and curated by Dr. Mary Nooter Roberts. Support has been provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the New York Council for the Humanities. The exhibition at the Davis Museum and Cultural Center is supported in part by the E. Franklin Robbins Charitable Trust, the Alice Gertrude Spink Art Fund, and the Wellesley College Friends of Art.
Special programs for this exhibition include a residency with Dr. Mary Nooter Roberts on February 10 -12 and a series of Open Classes.