Secrets of Ivory, the art of the Lega of Central Africa was initially co-organised by the Fowler Museum at UCLA and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of art in Kansas City. The curator of the exhibition was Dr. Elisabeth L. Cameron, Professor in the History of Art at the University of California at Santa Cruz. This exhibition presents the globally famous collection of Lega art belonging to physicist Jay T. Last, who has generously donated the collection to the Fowler Museum.
(1, 2, 3, 5 and 7) © Fowler Museum at UCLA; donations by Jay T. Last.
(4 and 6) © Fowler Museum at UCLA; Private Collection, Los Angeles.
Secrets of ivory
The art of the Lega of Central Africa
from 13 november 2013 to 26 january 2014
- East Mezzanine
- Collections or twin ticket
- Elisabeth L. Cameron, Associate Professor, History of Art and Visual Culture
- Gassia Armenian, Curatorial and Research Assistant at the Fowler Museum at UCLA
around the exhibition
- guided tours of the exhibition
- exhibition catalogue (forthcoming)
About the exhibition
"Let me explain to him the murmured teachings." – Lega proverb
This exhibition highlights the impressive collection of Lega art constituted by physicist Jay T. Last and generously donated by him to the Fowler Museum at UCLA. The abstract volumes and simplified forms of this artistic tradition, one of the most significant of central Africa, are striking in their inventiveness and elegance. Art plays a fundamental role for the Lega of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, both as a symbol of success, an educational tool and in the commemoration of the dead.
These works are an integral part of the Bwami initiatory society, and are used to teach lessons of morals and ethics. Associated with language (proverbs) and bodily expression (mime and dance), the works of art compose visual phrases: the ideas that they convey express the values and ideals of Lega society.
Lega artists create singular and astonishingly innovative forms while complying with strictly defined aesthetic codes. In order to emphasise this artistic diversity, the exhibition presents a great variety of works in a wide range of styles: headdresses in pangolin skin or ornamented with shells, leopard tooth necklaces, ivory spoons, cowrie shell belts, masks and figures sculpted in wood or ivory.
The exhibition presents these objects as works of art; only a few are presented in their original context. Proverbs accompany these works to demonstrate the powerful link between the visual and the verbal in Lega art: objects and words take on meaning by means of a symbolic language. Like many African peoples, the Lega associate beauty with moral virtue, which enables the Mwami – the members of the Bwami society – to teach moral, social and political values on the basis of exceptional works of art.
a few historical facts
The Lega people live on the south-eastern edge of the tropical forests of central Africa, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In the second half of the 19th century, the Lega and their neighbours were the victims of the slave and ivory trades taking place across the Indian Ocean. In 1885, the Lega were displaced into the Congo Free State, which became the Belgian Congo in 1908.
However, they lived in an isolated and mountainous region which was for a long time largely ignored by the colonial administration. The authorities declared the Bwami society illegal in 1933, then once again in 1948, which resulted in a radical change in Lega arts and ritual practices. Since the Congo obtained independence in 1960, both Lega and other Congolese have suffered enormously due to the tumultuous history of civil combat which is still taking place today.
the bwami society: initiation, the guiding thread of life
The Bwami society is the path by which Lega men and women attempt to achieve moral excellence, beauty, wisdom and prestige. Divided into five levels for the men and three for the women, the Bwami is an association of volunteers which is open to all members of the community. It accompanies and guides the person throughout their life.
the public face of the bwami
The Bwami community easily recognises its members by means of the public insignia and distinctive objects associated with the different levels and echelons. Contrary to the identifying signs that publicly proclaim the status of the members, the initiatory rites are not public and only initiated Bwami know of certain aspects of these.
entering adulthood: the heart of the bwami
A young boy begins his initiatory voyage with the first level. As for the later stages, the initiate is presented with a variety of objects, both natural and manufactured, in order to study and interpret them. The basket or satchel used to transport the objects are also the subjects of interpretation which are presented during the initiation. Objects and proverbs, dance and actions are intended to emphasise particular positive values and to discourage those that are negative. The richness of these ritual ceremonies provides the initiate with the talents and philosophical approach that will guide them throughout their adult life.
advancing in initiation: the people of the elephant's tail
The animal world is a rich source of metaphors for the Bwami teachers. Skilful hunters, the Lega have acquired a profound knowledge of the behaviour of animals and their physical characteristics which they associate metaphorically with human behaviour. The importance that the Bwami give to the animals is expressed in a variety of ways: objects, song, sculpted figurines, dance and mime and – of course – in proverbs.
the upper levels of bwami initiation: giving form to wisdom
Only the members of the Bwami society belonging to the highest levels may individually or collectively possess human figurines. As with all Lega art, these works only function in an initiatory context. Their meanings are generally associated with proverbs. Removed from their Bwami context, the human figurines lose their true meaning. A Bwami member who requires a figurine gives the artist a minimum number of elements in order to accomplish the task: the materials and a succinct description. While the artist has great liberty in sculpting the work, they are rarely aware of its purpose.
masks: symbols of continuity
Masks perpetuate the memory of the dead. As with many initiatory objects, their use and meanings vary according to the context of the ritual ceremonies. Used only in initiatory rites for the two highest Bwami levels, they are fixed to different parts of the body, piled, suspended from barriers, exposed, dragged across the ground and only occasionally worn on the forehead, their beards falling across the faces of those wearing them. Although women do not own masks, men and women use them and present them during very similar initiatory sequences.
the ultimate initiation: knowledge through contemplation
The final stage of the initiation, for the Bwami member as it is for the western art lover, is to look at, appreciate and see beyond the appearance. The Lega man who wishes to achieve the highest level of the Bwami is subject to a final ritual during which he is led by the master before several works of art. There is no exchange of words, no song and no dance. The initiate examines each object in silence. The knowledge acquired during a lifetime of learning, the study of objects and their ritualised structure are all keys that give access to new lessons in life and to new truths.