The Luba have sculpted very few masks. There are some masks inspired by the Kifwebe masks of the Songye, but with a softer modelling. Standing Luba statues are rare and probably represent the forest spirits or ancestors. Woman was one of the favourite themes found in Luba sculpture. The statues representing a woman with a cup, whatever the position whether sitting, kneeling, crouching, symbolize a divination rite.
Luba art uses harmonious volumes, and is curved and rounded. The works have natural proportions; the heads are round with a rounded forehead.
The History and Social Organisation of the Luba Empire
In Zaire, the regions of Shaba and Maniema are inhabited by the Luba and Songye. Nearby, are also the Hemba people.
Around the year 1500, an immigrant apparently Songye and named Nkongolo, created the 1st Kingdom of Luba. Kalala Ilunga kills Nkongolo who is a cruel tyrant, and creates the 2nd Luba Empire. The Empire fell under the colonisation of the Belgium people.
This 2nd Empire benefited from a more organised political system: the kingdom was divided into chieftaincies or provinces. At the head of this empire reigned a divine royalty blessed with supernatural powers that gave him the ability to rule. In the Luba court the ceremonial was very aristocratic. At court, the king was surrounded by clan kings called ‘Balopwe’, dignitaries, servants and artists. The ceremonial was complex and required the fabrication of important and prestigious objects: royal stool, sceptres, spear or arrow holders, bows, axes, knives. The royal chiefs of lineage owned sceptres, headrests and stools sculpted with feminine figures, axes…The clan kings were considered as the spiritual sons of the king and thus had the possibility of creating sub states in the empire.
The Position of the Artist in Luba Society
Artists held an esteemed position in the hierarchy. They carried a ceremonial axe on their shoulder to show their high position. Some artists were recruited from amongst the disabled or unattractive in society that could be neither hunters nor warriors. In effect, it was thought that their ugliness was linked to magical powers.
Luba Sculptures, Statues, Masks and Prestigious Objects
One of the recurrent themes of Luba sculpture was woman. In effect, according to Luba tradition, a feminine spirit, ‘Vidiye’ had been the founder of the clan and guarantor for both the lineage and of fertility. The women were the guardians of the cult. The royal wives played an important role in meeting the heads of neighbouring ethnic groups to organise alliances between clans by arranging marriages.
Healers were members of a very powerful secret society, founded on mutual help. This society also existed among the Hemba people. In reality, it only served to make its members wealthier, but nobody dared to contest it for fear of being poisoned.
Luba art is all about curved lines. The face is rounded, usually with downcast eyes, the nose has a gentle bridge and the mouth has pulpy lips. The coiffure depends on regional style. Among the Luba-Hemba and the Luba, the plaited hair forms a cross at the back of the head. The Shankadi have a headdress that takes the form of a waterfall. Tattoos are also subject to regional differences. Luba art uses harmonious volumes, and is curved and rounded. The works have natural proportions; the heads are round with a rounded forehead. The eyes are coffee bean shaped, and the ears are small. They have a beautiful dark patina. The sculptor pays great attention to detail: the scarification marks and the coiffure reveal signs of status. There is a characteristic treatment of the back and body. There are strong stylistic variations in Luba art due to the huge area covered by the empire.
Among the Luba, symbols of power are sculpted in wood: the chiefs’ thrones are feminine caryatid stools. There are also staffs surmounted by a head or feminine statue, or further still chief’s axes and arrow holders (symbol of the indissoluble nature of royal marriages). All these objects share the same formal characteristics: elegance, sensuality, softness.
The statues representing a woman with a cup, whatever the position whether sitting, kneeling, crouching, symbolize a divination rite. The cup contains white clay. This substance has a strong ritualistic signification all over Africa. The diviner, covered in white, used this type of statue. In this bowl certain objects could be found and by shaking the bowl and analyzing the new position of the objects the diviner could predict the future.
Harmonious statues of pregnant women can also be found. They represented a favourable genie or spirit, recognizable through some rather surprising and unexplained details, for example the pregnant woman might have a beard.
Standing Luba statues are rare and probably represent the forest spirits or ancestors. They are covered with an oily patina due to the number of libations poured onto them.
Drums and pipes can also be found in Luba sculpted figures.
Luba masks are rare and can be found mainly in the eastern parts of the empire. The Luba also used Songye Kifwebe masks, but made with less aggressive and more rounded forms. There were very few zoomorphic masks.
There exist other masks, notably a cloche shaped anthropomorphic mask, with a coiffure that has horns and a rounded face, a sign of plenitude and harmony.