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KBC: Ethics and Beauty in the Heart of Africa

African Arts; 3/22/2003; Grootaers, Jan-Lodewijk


KBC Bank Gallery Brussels, Belgium May 4-July 28, 2002

There are a handful of African peoples we tend to associate automatically with their "own" anthropologist or art historian. Examples that spring to mind are the Dogon of Marcel Griaule and the Chokwe of Marie Louise Bastin--and the Lega of Daniel Biebuyck. Most, if not all, of what is known in the West about the art and culture of the Lega people, who live in the forests of the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, has been written by this scholar over the past half-century. Biebuyck did his fieldwork among the Lega (numbering approximately 300,000 at the time) in the then Belgian Congo from 1951 to 1953 and again in 1954 and 1957. Yet, unlike the Dogon and the Chokwe, the Lega have hardly been the subject of more recent field research; still Elisabeth Cameron, in her introduction to Art of the Lega, mentions several Lega scholars who wrote studies in the 1970s that provide insiders" perspectives (Cameron 2001).

"Lega Ethics and Beauty in the Heart of Africa" was the first major exhibition on the Lega to be held in Europe. Its prestigious location in the KBC Bank Gallery on Brussels' Grand Place befitted the importance of the event and the quality of the exhibits--nearly 180 objects selected by Biebuyck and the Belgian artist Michel Boulanger. They were grouped in showcases, almost didactically, by category: paraphernalia (headgear and ornaments, including necklaces, bracelets, and belts); stools; small masks; large masks; zoomorphic figurines; and anthropomorphic figurines (subdivided into large wooden figurines, large ivory heads, ivory and bone figurines, and small figurines); spoons; miniature implements; and other sculptures. Most of the works came from Belgian private collections, and many were shown for the first time. The other main source was the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, which possesses the largest collection of Lega objects in the world.

Right up to the 1930s, the Lega produced a wide range of artifacts in the context of their hierarchically structured closed associations, the most important of which was the bwami. This society encouraged its members to develop self-knowledge and create harmonious relations with the family, society, nature, and the world of the ancestors. Membership for men and their wives was based on complex, secret initiation rites; it conferred status, power, and authority, as well as prestige and privileges. Lega art was a key feature in some of the most elaborate rituals of the two highest grades of the bwami society. The objects could only be owned, handled, or seen by these grades of initiates, and some of them served as signs of rank. At the same time they were didactic instruments used during initiation, acting as metaphorical condensates of moral, philosophical, and social values; hence their close link with aphorisms, of which Biebuyck collected some 5,000 in the course of his fieldwork. As is well "known, Biebuyck was himself initiated into one of the higher grades of the bwami, a process that lasted thirteen months (Biebuyck 1973).

Lega art is characterized by its small size, simple forms, and striking patinas. These properties are closely related to the highly tactile use that was made of the objects. Artifacts were carried around individually or in large baskets; they were displayed, handled, or held up during rituals; and some were worn on the body. Yellow or russet patinas were greatly favored for ivory figurines and masks, whereas wooden masks were frequently whitened with kaolin. The direct, unadorned quality of the objects has often been interpreted as an expression of Lega ethics--hence the title of the exhibition. Indeed, as seems to be common in many parts of Africa (cf. Van Damme 1987), the Lega have a word for a single value that encompasses both beauty and goodness: busoga.

The exhibition's installation, designed by Winston Spriet, was in keeping with the contents. The style of presentation was sober and undramatic, with light gray walls, ample light, and an overall sense of transparency. Explanations were reduced to the barest minimum (e.g., "Oblong object. Bone. Private collection"). Clearly, the emphasis was on aesthetic experience, and the visitor was presented with "objects of art." Some contextualization was provided by life-size reproductions of black-and-white photographs taken by Biebuyck in the field. A slim brochure with a list of the exhibits gave brief introductions to the general categories of objects. For more information, including a map of the region, the visitor had to rely on the catalogue written by Biebuyck.

To some extent this style of installation reinforces the notion of a "rootless and time less African culture." Yet Lega culture is rooted in both space and time. On the one hand, the bwami society must be placed within a wider regional context of closed, "voluntary" associations (of. Biebuyck 1986). On the other hand--and this is more relevant here--the bwami society and its art also have a history. Opposed by administrators and missionaries alike during the early colonial period--because of its secret activities, its moral authority, the solidarity of its members, and the fact that it was a threat to the "chiefs" appointed by the Belgians--the association was first outlawed in 1933 and finally dissolved by decree in 1947. Biebuyck's initiation took place while the bwami continued underground, and the society was again officially recognized in 1958 (partly thanks to the researcher's reports). By then, however, its art production could no longer be revived.

What has been happening in Lega society since 1958--after the country's independence in 1960, the Mulelist rebellion, the Mobutu regime, and successive wars, first against Mobutu and now against Kabila? It should not be forgotten that Kivu Province, where the Lega live, has been the scene of violent conflicts over the past decade. Under these circumstances, have the activities of the closed associations survived, intensified, disappeared, or changed? Are artifacts still used in these societies, and if so, in what ways do they differ from the "classical" ones displayed in exhibitions such as this? Biebuyck has analyzed changes in Lega art with reference to the breakdown of traditions during the colonial period (Biebuyck 1976), but the above questions remain largely unanswered (even though Cameron's 2001 catalogue considers the effect of postcolonial events on Lega society). That makes the use of the present tense in what is an otherwise excellent catalogue all the more problematic. The "ethnographic present" again enhances the false sense of timelessness.

Another (minor) problem with the catalogue concerns the lists of publications and exhibitions provided for some of the objects. A rapid review reveals about half a dozen works for which even recent exhibitions and publications have been overlooked. Nevertheless, the catalogue provides interesting background information and contextualization for the objects. At the exhibition itself, as already mentioned, visitors were meant to remain largely uninitiated onlookers. And, as we are reminded by one of the Lega aphorisms quoted in the catalogue (p. 22), "Noninitiates: even though you see our loincloth you do not see our scrotum." Sometimes that is a pity.

Lega Books: Bibliography

The catalogue by Daniel Biebuyck, with photographs by Hughes Dubois, is published by KBC Bank & Insurance Group and Snoeck-Ducaju & Zoon (240 pp., approx. 200 color photos; available in English, Dutch and French; EUR 40 hardcover).

Lega Ethics and Beauty in the Heart of Africa
Author: Daniel Biebuyck; available at Amazon from $134.57

Biebuyck Daniel. 1973. Lega Culture: Art, initiation, and Moral Philosophy among a Central African People. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press.

Biebuyck Daniel. 1976. "The Decline of Lega Sculptural Art," in Ethnic and Tourist Arts: Cultural Expressions from the Fourth World, ed. N. Graburn, pp. 334-49. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press.

Biebuyck, Daniel. 1986. The Arts of Zaire (Volume II). Eastern Zaire: The Ritual and Artistic Context of Voluntary Associations. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press.

Cameron, Elisabeth. 2001. Art of the Legs. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History.

Van Damme, Wilfried. 1987. A Comparative Analysis Concerning Beauty and Ugliness in Sub-Saharan Africa (Africana Gandensia, 4). Ghent: Rijksuniversiteit Gent.

Jan-Lodewijk Grootaers is an independent researcher and exhibition curator based in Brussels. He is co-editor of the recently published two-volume book Forms of Wonderment: The History and Collections of the Afrika Museum, Berg en Dal.

Product image for ASIN: 0930741870 Art of the Lega
Author: Elisabeth Lynn Cameron; Buy New: $56.09

La sculpture des Lega
Author: Daniel P Biebuyck;

Symbolism of the Lega stool
Author: Daniel P Biebuyck;

Lega culture
Author: Daniel P Biebuyck;

Effects on art of the outlawing of the bwami associati...
Author: Daniel P Biebuyck;

Les Lega et leur artLes Lega et leur art
sur les traces d’un rêveur égaré au Congoland

Auteur : Emile-Alexandre Georges

319 pp., 17 fig., 2 map., 186 b/w pictures
36 color pictures.
ISBN 90-75894-64-3
Buy for : 40 euro in Tervueren or mail the author with David Norden compliments at e.a.georges AT skynet.be 

Béla Hein, grand initié des ivoires LegaBéla Hein, grand initié des ivoires Lega

COPYRIGHT 2003 The Regents of the University of California


related articles : Lega masks 

Art of the Lega : Meaning and Metaphor in Central Africa 

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