This female bwanga bwa Cibola figure bears symbolic scarifications and a beautiful hairpiece with a central braid. Serving protective and therapeutic purposes, these maternity figures played a role in the bwanga bwa Cibola cult which stimulated fertility and birth.
Bwanga bwa Cibola maternity figure
- Lulua people
Democratic Republic of the Congo
Wood and pigments
H 31cm; W 6cm; D 7.5cm
- Collected by Karel Timmermans in the village of Kabulwanda in 1959
- Former collection of Karel Timmermans-Haems, Tervuren (Belgium)
- Sotheby’s, Paris, 5 December 2006, lot no. 118
- Former Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière collection, Paris
- Musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac (70.2019.37.2), Gift Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière.
The work’s original context
The Lulua people’s magic-religious rituals and manga objects of power
This maternity figure was used to stimulate female fertility, to ensure that women’s pregnancies went smoothly and to prevent infant mortality. It sheds light on the Lulua people’s spiritual and ritual world, of which only rare records remain. This type of work alludes to particular practices with protective, prophylactic and therapeutic purposes, considered ‘affliction rites’ with the main aim of driving out evil forces and spirits responsible for the harm some women suffered. This female effigy also embodies the notion of physical perfection as the reflection of moral integrity, which was at the heart of thinking among the Lulua and Bena Lulua people, a diverse Bantu-speaking people spread over a vast zone in the Kasai-Occidental province in the centre-south of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
This type of anthropomorphic statuary was used in magic-religious rites. It belongs to a category of religious objects called manga (singular bwanga), generally used to encourage healing, fecundity, good fortune and protection. As repositories of ambivalent energies or forces, these manga could also be used to cause harm and various troubles in individuals or the community. As intercessional objects between the world of men and that of ancestors through the intervention of spirits or vital energies, of which they were the vessels, manga could appear in the form of natural vessels (a horn, calabash, snail shell or animal skull) or elaborate sculptures. Their power, renewed at each new moon, was activated by adding or applying a mix of various substances (of human, animal, plant or mineral origin) called bishimba. These magic concoctions were mixed by a practitioner: a mupaki wa manga ritual specialist or soothsayer-healer authorised to handle these energies. Long called ‘fetishes’, the name ‘objects of power’ is now preferred. Lulua manga or ‘objects of power’ in the form of anthropomorphic figures known as mpingu (singular lupingu) can be divided into different categories associated with particular religious practices. The plastic quality and refinement of certain statues indicate that the objects were likely crafted by a renowned professional sculptor and that they were likely dedicated to a social elite or served a community purpose.
Male figures: commemorating chiefs and ancestors
Ensuring the continued existence of the power of chiefs and objects for commemorating prestigious ancestors, the male representations embellishing war insignia (usually helmets, daggers or swords) are called bwanga bwa bukalenga.
An ideal of beauty against witchcraft
The female figures holding a bowl, pestle or stick (bwanga bwa bwimpe or bwanga bwa bulenga) reflect the cultural ideal of physical beauty, a marker of moral virtues, and were used to protect against witchcraft or evil spirits.
Effigies to protect mothers and newborns
Lastly, the representations of maternity figures and pregnant women, busts or full-length, are called bwanga bwa Cibola. They were used in a specific religious practice for fertility problems among women undergoing a series of miscarriages or the death of their child at birth or when very young. The basic bwanga bwa Cibola objects, or those in the form of more elaborate anthropomorphic statuettes, were kept in a basket near their owner’s bedding or slipped into the owner’s pagne. Like the patient and their child, they were the subject of chants and ritual sacrifices at each new moon and were regularly coated in a mix of oil, kaolin and red camwood powder.
The bwanga bwa Cibola cult
Having followed a treatment of a series of traditional medicines, which remained ineffective, the patient or her family would opt for a consultation with a soothsayer to determine the origin of her problems. It was believed that women, possessed by a spirit or metaphysical force known as Cibola, were victims of witchcraft or that their troubles came from their transgression of social rules, especially sexual relations outside of wedlock. The soothsayer would recommend that the patient be initiated into the bwanga bwa Cibola association or ‘cult’ overseen by a ritual specialist, usually a woman also initiated into bwanga bwa Cibola. This woman would ensure that the initiation process, which included different phases, went smoothly. The patient was then confined to a hut at the edge of the village for a period of isolation of varying duration. During this initiatory retreat, which would include a series of dietary restrictions and strict rules of behaviour, she would have to confess her sins, carrying out sacrifices and singing ritual chants to improve her fertility and ensure protection of her future child. Although frequent sexual activity was advised for the gestation to successfully reach its initial stage, a period of total abstinence was then recommended until the birth. According to Constantijn Petridis, the reclusion of the mother and newborn could sometimes continue well after birth, until the child was able to walk. The latter, whatever their gender, was given the name of Cibola and considered the reincarnation of an ancestor. When the process of initiation into bwanga bwa Cibola had reached a successful conclusion (a successful birth and a child in good health), it was brought to a close with a public ceremony.
Marks of beauty and body signs: physical and moral ideals
In addition to the noble pose and gentle expression is the meticulous depiction of the adornments, hairstyle and scarifications, which fell out of use as a practice among the Lulua people and associated groups, and “only remains in statuary”1. These marks of beauty would praise the notion of physical perfection, denoted by the term bwimpe, where beauty and kindness are intrinsically linked. Among the Lulua people, the concept of ideal beauty therefore reflects moral integrity and forms a defence against witchcraft.
Although most bwanga bwa Cibola figures have a gleaming sheen that attests to the regular ritual anointments performed on them, the powdery polychrome surface of this maternity figure – especially well conserved – evokes the practices of bodily adornment, particularly the mix of oil, clay and wood powder with which men and women coated their body during ceremonies up until the 1960s. This mix was also applied daily to women during their period of reclusion during initiation into bwanga bwa Cibola.
Engraving representing the Lulua chief 'Kalamba-Mukenge', whose body is covered in spiral and geometric scarifications. © D.R.
Scarifications and symbols
The profusion of curvilinear and geometric scarifications that magnify the whole body allude to this ideal of beauty and are highly symbolic. According to Constantijn Petridis, the scarifications “particularly referred to bulenga: beauty created by the hand of man, evoking a perfect, healthy skin and outstanding moral and physical qualities […] Beyond their aesthetic role, these scarifications also had an erotic purpose that was revealed when they were touched. Some of these bodily ornaments also have symbolic value. The concentric circles and spirals (mikono or byombo) allude to the great stars and symbolise life and hope. A double wavy line (mwoyo wa muunda) on the forehead, for example, embodies life in the human body, especially the heart beating in the chest or the child growing in the womb”2. Lastly, the prominent navel is highlighted through a double circle and a network of geometric scarifications. The prominence of this umbilical hiatus, a recurring representation in the arts of Africa, symbolises the ontological tie with the ancestors3.
2 Petridis in BAEKE Viviane, BOUTTIAUX-NDIAYE Anne-Marie, DE PALMENAER Els, VERSWIJVER Gustaaf, et. al., Trésors d'Afrique. Musée de Tervuren, Tervuren, Musée Royal de l'Afrique centrale, 1995, p. 334.
Headdresses and ornaments
Wearing a traditional loincloth and adorned with a prestigious necklace with several rows of beads underlining the delicacy and dignity of neckwear, the statuette is also wearing a belt, which could allude to the belt that women received during their initiation retreat, from the second month of pregnancy, to prevent miscarriages. These amulet belts called mubangu were made up of money cowries, glass or ivory beads, and small calabashes containing magic protective items. The pointed coiffure bears witness to an old and particularly elaborate fashionand known as disunga or disungu. Like on this effigy it can be embellished with beads and money cowries and can be covered with the same mix that was applied to the body. Like the scarifications, coiffures also helped highlight symbolic zones of the body. For Constantijn Petridis, they especially underlined “the back of the head and the fontanelle […], which evokes a key concept in Lulua esotericism; gaining the faculty of clairvoyance and double sight to discern the invisible in the visible and the past and future in the present”.4
History of the work and its background
This Lulua maternity figure was made with outstanding craftsmanship. Belgian collector Karel Timmermans collected it in 1959 in the village of Kabulwanda. At the time, he was a French teacher in a secondary school in Kananga (formerly called Luluabourg). It remained in his collection for almost 50 years, often exhibited and photographed for publication and considered a masterpiece in the body of works. It was acquired by Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière in 2006 before joining the collection of the musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac in 2017.
Introduced to the arts of this region by his brother Paul, a lover of African art and the founder of the Musée d’Art et de Folklore in Luluabourg (today called Kananga), Karel Timmermans developed a true passion for the arts of this area of Kasaï, whose people he had “so appreciated”5. He tirelessly travelled around the country, forging friendships with villagers and traditional chiefs, and amassed an especially large set of Lulua statues, the presence of which is somewhat limited in Western museum collections. What makes Karel Timmermans’ collection particularly special is the extensive documentation associated with each item he collected in the field. His precious notes on the context and use of these works have helped rediscover and understand this especially rare body of works, which has now become emblematic of Kasaï arts.
Selective biography and cartography
Thierry Renard (2020), musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac, Paris.
BAEKE Viviane, BOUTTIAUX-NDIAYE Anne-Marie, DE PALMENAER Els, VERSWIJVER Gustaaf, et. al., Trésors d’Afrique. Musée de Tervuren, Tervuren, Musée Royal de l’Afrique centrale, 1995.
COLE Herbert M., Maternité. Mères et enfants dans les arts d’Afrique, Brussels, Fonds Mercator, 2017.
DE HEUSCH Luc, Utotombo, l'art d'Afrique dans les collections privées belges, Brussels, 1988.
FALGAYRETTES-LEVEAU, Femmes dans les arts d’Afrique, Paris, Musée Dapper, 2010.
JOUBERT Hélène (Dir.), Éclectique : Une collection du XXIe siècle, Paris, musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac ; Flammarion, 2016, pp. 139-141.
LA GAMMA Alissa, Heroic Africans : Legendary Leaders, Iconic Sculptures, New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012.
LEHUARD Raoul, « La collection Timmermans-Haems » in Arts d’Afrique Noire, n° 48, Winter 1983, pp. 38-44.
MAESEN Albert, Umbangu : art du Congo au Musée royal du Congo belge, Brussels, Cultura, 1960.
MAESEN Albert, « Statuaire et culte de fécondité chez les Luluwa du Kasaï (Zaïre)» in Quaderni Poro, n°3, Milan, 1982, pp. 49-58.
PETRIDIS Constantin, « A figure for Cibola : Art, Politics and Aesthetics among the Luluwa People of the Democratic Republic of the Congo” in Metropolitan Museum Journal, New York, vol. 36, 2001, pp. 235-258.
PETRIDIS Constantin, Art et pouvoirs dans la savane d’Afrique centrale : Luba, Songye, Tshokwe, Luluwa, Arles, Actes Sud, 2008.
PETRIDIS Constantin, « Entre Ciel et terre. La statuaire luluwa de la République Démocratique du Congo » in Tribal Art Magazine, Autumn 2018, n°89, pp. 100-113.
PETRIDIS Constantin, Luluwa : Arts d’Afrique centrale entre ciel et terre, Brussels, Fonds Mercator, 2018.
FALGAYRETTES-LEVEAU, Femmes dans les arts d’Afrique, Paris, Musée Dapper, 2010.
TIMMERMANS Paul, « Essai de typologie des Bena Luluwa du Kasai » in Africa-Tervuren, vol. 12, n° 1, 1966, pp. 17-27.
WISSMANN Herman von, et. al., Im Innern Afrikas. Die Erforschung des Kassaï während der Jahre 1883, 1884 und 1885, third edition., Leipzig, F. A. Brockhaus, 1891.