A sign of prestige and power, this female figure is topped by a three-pronged bow stand. The attractive face with closed eyes is decorated with an elegant headdress crossed at the back. The figure brings to mind the dignitary entrusted to guard the invisible royal bows and arrows that slay malevolent spirits. Attributed to ‘The Warua Master’, this famous piece has been displayed in numerous exhibitions and publications.
Bow stands, prestigious insignia
- Luba people. Attributed to ‘The Warua Master’.
- Democratic Republic of the Congo, Luvua region
Hardwood with sheen, fibres and pearls
H 66.5 cm; W 19 cm; D 11 cm
- Collected by Léon Guébels (1889–1966) between 1913 and 1918
- Former collection of Jean Willy Mestach (1926–2014), Brussels
- Merton Simpson (1928–2013), New York
- Former private collection, New York
Former Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière collection, Paris
Musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac (70.2017.66.23), Gift Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière.
The work’s original context
This bow stand, an original work, attained its fine quality through the artistic choices of the Luba master-sculptors. Bow stands were prominent symbols of royal power and among the most sacred prestigious insignia of the Luba people and some Luba-influenced peoples.
Its structure is about much more than just regalia and relates to cosmogony and founding myths. It sheds light on the spiritual and ritual world of the Luba people, based in the south-east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
In colonial literature, the Luba kingdom was referred to as an empire, but it corresponds more to a group of political entities structured into kingdoms or chiefdoms that became centralised over the 17th century and see themselves as the direct descendants of the cultural hero Kalala Ilunga. The name ‘Luba’ therefore covers a complex socio-cultural category denoting different groups with political or cultural ties to each other, spread over a vast area that includes the provinces of Kasaï-Occidental, Kasaï-Oriental, Katanga and Maniema (south Kivu). The three largest groups are usually represented by the western Luba people or the Luba-Kasai people, the central Luba people, who are dominated by the Luba-Shankadi people, and the eastern Luba people, who include kindred groups like the Hemba, Boyo and Kunda peoples. The central and western Luba people are usually distinguished by patrilineal descent from the eastern Luba people, who are based on matrilineal descent. Political power is dominated by the sacred kings, who descend from the mythical hero Kalala Ilunga, the balopwe chiefs and the royal bamfumu dignitaries. According to Mary Nooter Roberts, the royal courts of Kabongo and Kasongo Niembo, “fanning out from the heartland”, made up a central zone that “through essential alliances, [...] assumed the basic structure of the Luba court, borrowing and adapting Luba insignia and rituals as suited their purposes.”1 Many Luba kingdoms and chiefdoms that were more or less independent developed from this nerve centre to neighbouring or outlying Luba-influenced regions. This geographical region’s vast area and the socio-cultural particularities of its groups of people explain the abundance and great stylistic diversity of the artworks originating there.
From hunter to king: the bow stand as an object of power
This emblem of power initially served as an accessory that would hold the hunter’s bow and arrows. Metal versions of it from Zambia and Malawi are also known to us. It is characteristic of the Luba region, where the most elaborate models are found. These bow stands are prestigious insignia, like spears and caryatid seats. They are very often embellished with a female figure. The upper part is made up of a trident with prongs decorated with incisions in geometric patterns that allude to royal secrets.
The initial design of the bow stand is connected to the bubinda or buyanga initiation society of Luba hunters who would pay tribute to the wind spirits by planting – especially in front of their hut – a fork with three prongs on which they would hang offerings, usually what they had caught from hunting.
The use of bow stands “embodying the protection of the king who looks over his people”2 goes back to the very birth of the Luba kingdom. As an especially important emblem of royal power, the bow stand associates the royal figure with the hunter by symbolically evoking the mythical hunter Mbidi Kiluwe, father of the cultural hero Kalala Ilunga (himself father of Chibinda Ilunga, the mythical hero of the Chokwé people). Nephew of the tyrannical king Kongolo (or Nkongolo), who tried to rid himself of him several times during his reign, Kalala Ilunga killed his uncle and seized control. According to François Neyt, “with Kalala Ilunga ousting Nkongolo, the symbols of the bow, arrow and therefore the bow stand acquired a new political dimension. […] Upon taking office, Kalala Ilunga took the name Ilunga Mwine Munza […] [of which] the last term alludes to arrow barbs. The figure of Kalala Ilunga united two traditions in hunting: that of his father Mbidi Kiluwe [...] and the origin myths according to which his bowstring snapped when he was hunting around the sources of the Lomami river. Through his mother, he enjoyed the gifts of Nkongolo, who, at birth, held in his hand a bow and arrows […].This double bloodline was, for the young king, confirms for royal authority.”3
With strong spiritual powers, these bow stands, considered to be “vessel[s] where the king keeps invisible arrows that slay malevolent spirits”4, were part of regular rituals and sacrifices. A female dignitary would be entrusted to look after them. They would be kept in a secret place where royal relics were also stored. This guardian would follow the king or chief during public ceremonies, with a bow between her breasts, symbolising a ‘living bow stand’.
A Luba master-sculptor
This bow stand belongs to an extraordinary range of nine emblematic works of Luba art (four bow stands, three statues and two caryatid seats) attributed to a master-sculptor based in the western region of middle Luvua, south of the Hemba region. Because we do not have exact information about the precise origin of works in this body, with the exception of two, this sculptor was successively labelled, from 1904, as ‘Warua Master’5, ‘Master of the Court of Sopola’, ‘Kunda Master’ and, more recently, ‘Luvua Master’. This anonymous artist, active from the end of the 18th century to the 19th century, was considered by some as ‘the Polykleitos of Luba artists’ in reference to the search for and systematic use of a ‘canon’, which characterises the formal structure of these works.
Between tradition and artistic innovation
Combining pure lines and simple geometric forms, tradition and technical innovation, this sculptor expresses – in a unique and instantly recognisable style – immobility and strength, restraint and sensuality. For Bernard de Grunne, “this artist’s most remarkable characteristic is the almost mathematical rigour with which he crafts his sculptures. He basically uses two simple geometric forms: the sphere and the triangle, which he combines in a perfectly balanced way.The sphere is used for the head, while the triangle is used several times: in the breasts, in the empty space made by the arms joining the breasts, and in the three prongs of the bow stand above the head. Furthermore, a computer-based study of the proportions between the different body parts has revealed that the sculptor used isometric spaces and the golden ratio in the statues’ very structures with great sophistication.”6
Although the region and precise identity of this sculptor remain uncertain, the works attributed to him also reflect the influence of different sculptural traditions from either side of the Luvua river, which can be observed among the Boyo people, notably the Kunda clan, the Tabwa people and the Hemba people, master-sculptors especially renowned in this region.
Omnipresent representations of women
The image of the woman is used to ornate objects of power that are used exclusively by men, and holds a central – if not essential – place in the art of the Luba people, who consider that ‘royalty is a woman’. The special importance of depictions of women in Luba artwork is far from trivial and is highly symbolic.
Women were the guardians of royal secrets. This role was symbolised by the position of their two hands supporting their two sustaining breasts. They occupied a pivotal role in Luba politics and religion (the mbudye society, which preserves and honours the memory of kings, is thought to have been founded by a woman).
For the Luba people, the female body was the only recipient strong enough to house the spirits, as in the case of the Mwadi women, who incarnated the spirits of deceased kings. For some researchers, representations of female figures on bow stands allude to women at the origins of royal clans or whose influence has marked the kingdom’s history. As Mary Nooter Roberts has underlined, the predominance of depictions of women “is not simply for beautification and ornamentation, nor is it a reference to the sorts of "fertility", "sexual frisson", or "’phallocratic’ gender dominance" [...] Women were and are central to Luba politics. […] while men possess overt authority, women hold covert sacred authority and play critical roles in alliance-building, decision-making, succession disputes, and investiture rites. Women also attract and secure the allegiance of Bavidye tutelary spirits necessary to Luba politics.”7
Formal structures, positions and symbolic attributes
While the sheen of this bow stand attests to the regular ritual anointments performed on it, the sculptural choices made in producing this object are likewise meaningful. The formal structure and some ornamental details, such as the scarifications and hairstyle, highlight symbolic areas of the body while celebrating women and alluding to origin myths.
Hairstyles and symbols
From the accounts given by Joseph Thompson, who claimed, in the 1880s, “that the iron rod of fashion rules in the heart of Africa as firmly as in the select circles of Paris or London”, to the most detailed descriptions of the so-called “headdress people” from David Livingstone, Verney L. Cameron, Edward C. Hore and Reverend Pierre Colle, the impressive diversity and refinement of hairstyles made a significant impression on the Europeans who travelled through this region of Africa from the end of the 19th century.
Represented meticulously in sculptures, the famous so-called ‘waterfall’ mikanda hairstyles, which would require around fifty hours of work, are associated with the central Luba people, while the structure of the impressive quadrifoil or cross-shaped chignons, of which there were many variants, are typical of the eastern Luba people. Often embellished with ivory hairpins, pearls or seashells, these sophisticated hairstyles – indicators of social status and cultural belonging – highlight the head as the centre of intelligence and vital energy, and especially underline the back of the head and the fontanelle, which stimulate the spiritual faculty of ‘double view’.
The preserve of the nobility and a token of a fashion that disappeared during the first half of the 20th century, the beautiful cross-shaped hairstyle represented on this bow stand is made up of a quadrifoil chignon, extended with four vertical and horizontal plaits that cross each other at the back. This hairstyle with special symbolic meaning was described by the Reverend Pierre Colle at the start of the 20th century: “along the far line of the open forehead is a band running from one ear to the other, formed by several plaits while at the rear the plaits cross at equal angles.”
According to François Neyt, the cross-shaped coiffure, the intertwining plaits of which symbolises the universe’s four directions, “bears the signs of clairvoyance and reflects the real, symbolic role of women of the chignon [...] extension of the full rounded forehead and top of the shaved head, and evokes heaven. […].The coiffure thus presents itself as a crossroads where spirits gathered and dispersed. […]. There is also an economic dimension to the coiffure’s form. A Tabwa myth recounts how Kyombo Nkuwa, the chief of migration, carried, in the space covered by the plaits, the essential elements of cultivation: the seeds of edible plants, the vital fire and the basket for collecting taxes. Furthermore, when shaking his strands of hair then planting them, the hero was behind the origins of agriculture. [This] Kyombo legend corroborates the association of magic power with hair.”8
Ideals of beauty and scarifications: between eroticism and symbolism
The Luba people are especially known for some of their bodily alterations, particularly their scarifications, the erotic purpose of which was revealed upon seeing and touching them, as well as the practice of stretching the vaginal labia majora, depicted in many works. These standards of beauty would sublimate the idea of physical perfection, which, for both the Luba and Lulua peoples, played an apotropaic role.
Scarifications, the patterns of which feature on many Luba royal insignia, are of special value as they embody the bizila or secrets and prohibitions relating to royalty. For Mary Nooter Roberts, among the Luba people “a mystical dimension still informs the beautification of Luba women. Luba assert that bodily transformations render a woman an effective vessel with which to capture and hold potent energies, and thereby establish direct communication with the Bavidye. […] through such processes do royal insignia become effective spirit vessels - that is, they too must reflect the signs of female beauty that Luba consider to be as attractive and meaningful to the Bavidye as they are to themselves.”9
History of the work and its background
This outstanding object was collected in the field by the Belgian Léon Guébels between 1913 and 1918. It became part of the prestigious collection belonging to the emblematic Belgian artist and collector Jean Willy Mestach.
It reached the American art dealer Merton Simpson in the 1980s and joined a large New York collection before being added to the collection of Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière. By acquiring this bow stand, considered a gem of Luba art, the musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac became the second museum, alongside the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt, to possess a Luba bow stand attributed to this great artist known as ‘The Warua Master’, or, more recently, ‘The Luvua Master’.
Selective biography and cartography
Thierry Renard (2020), musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac, Paris.
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