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Attributing African Art: Some Lega Ivories and the Case for a "Keitula Master".




Despite its aesthetic and cultural distance from my primary areas of art historical familiarity, I have had a long-standing fascination with the art of sub-Saharan Africa. However, admittedly, I do bring certain Eurocentric attitudes and expectations to my appreciation of African art works. Among these is a desire to discover who created the art work and to know specifically when and where it was made. Of course, since African art is largely undocumented, the idea of being able to find the answers to these questions seems initially fanciful.

Nevertheless, these questions were on my mind several years ago as I examined an African figurine I had come across in a local antique store (figs. 1-3). According to the shop owner, it had come out of an "old Charleston [South Carolina] collection." My rudimentary understanding of the aesthetics of African art was, fortunately, sufficient to allow me to look past what, according to Western standards, might be regarded as primitive or even crude and to appreciate the statuette's compelling simplicity. Its tactile appeal also was seductive. Despite its small size this anthropomorphic figurine had a presence that was (to use an overworked art historical term) "monumental."

The full-standing statuette is carved from elephant ivory. Almost half of its six-inch height is devoted to a cylindrical (really eight-sided) torso. The juncture of hips and torso is pronounced, producing a bow-legged effect in the stubby legs and feet, the proportions of which remind one of the source of the material from which the figure is carved. Sharply sloping shoulders and neck support a rounded head with a lozenge- shape face divided down the line of the nose into two receding planes. Details are suggested abstractly through patterns of dots and striations filled with a dark-brown pigment. Triangles of dots on either side of the face suggest hair or, perhaps, the scarification that is so much a part of African body art. Each eye consists of a dot within a circle; two dots are used for the nostrils and a zigzag incised line creates a grimacing mouth. The neck area is highlighted by two zigzag necklaces. A line of dots encircles the base of the neck dropping, like epaulets, above abbreviated arms which are covered with chevron-like striations. Two parallel rows of dots run vertically down the front of the torso and on either side of the back, while horizontal double rows of dots appear on the sides. Similar double rows of dots are on the outer side of each leg. There is no physical indication of gender but the impression is definitely masculine. A cowrie shell remains affixed with resin to the top of the head which has been flattened for the purpose. The patina of the ivory surface varies from a creamy white to a honey colored yellow.

Even with my limited knowledge of the regional characteristics of African art, I realized that this statuette came from the Lega (also called Warega or Belega) people who live in the eastern part of the present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo (once known as the Belgian Congo and, subsequently, as Zaire). The quarter million inhabitants of Legaland live in small villages in the Sud-Kivu province at the northern end of Lake Tanganyika. The Lega people are loosely organized at the governmental level and traditionally have looked for guidance to the Bwami society which plays a major role in determining the social, political, economic, religious and cultural lives of the population. Almost all art works produced by the Lega have had a Bwami function.

Bwami is such a dominant force in Legaland that, during the colonial era, it was seen as a threat and Belgian officials twice outlawed the society, first, in 1933 and, again, more forcefully, in 1948. How successful these attempts to suppress Bwami were is uncertain but they apparently had a stifling effect upon the production of Bwami-related art works. Since independence, Bwami has reemerged but subsequent upheavals in the region have taken a toll on both the society and the general Lega population.

Bwami was hierarchically organized into five distinct grades with several rank levels within each. The Bwami multi-tiered structure guides members towards a goal of moral excellence and physical perfection (busoga, in the Lega-Shabunda dialect) through a process of initiation rites and ritual instruction. Much of this educational process is conveyed through a combination of traditional proverbs, aphorisms, and metaphors, the understanding of which is facilitated through poetry, music, dance, song, gesture, and the handling of selected objects.

Objects (masengo) used in the initiation rituals, depending on the grade or levels being sought, may include natural materials, called mitume (e.g., seedpods, nutshells, dried flowers, bird beaks, porcupine quills, pangolin claws, animal bones and skulls), as well as zoomorphic and anthropomorphic figurines created specifically for Bwami purposes (binkungankunga) and carved from wood, bone, or ivory. When utilized in Bwami initiations, these items take on layered meanings, playing a mnemonic role associated with concepts, ideals, and moral attitudes and are meant to be contemplated and absorbed. They are the conveyers of Lega wisdom and traditions.

Just as there is a hierarchy of grades in Bwami, so, too, is there a hierarchy of materials used in its ceremonies. Found objects are used in the initiation rituals and instruction in the lower grades of kongabulumbu, kansilembo, and ngandu. Sculpted wooden figurines of animals and humans (kalmbangoma) are added to the mix only in the two upper grades of yananio and kindi, with ivory carvings generally being reserved for the latter grade. With each advancing initiation stage and each change in the objective lesson, comes an increasing metaphoric revelation of Bwami wisdom. Only Bwami members of the highest rank, that of lutumbo lwa kindi, are entitled to own an anthropomorphic statuette in ivory (known as an iginga; plural maginga) such as the figurine under discussion here.

According to Lega authority Daniel Biebuyck, "Functionally the maginga figurines represent the highest, most coveted set of individually-owned initiation objects and insignia. From the point of view of their meanings the ivory/bone anthropomorphic figurines constitute a vast panorama of positively and negatively conceived characters, most of them conceived as exemplifications of the moral code of the Bwami." (1) These elite ivory objects are viewed as power sources imbued with supernatural energies that can either harm or help their owners. The heaviness of the ivory indicates a concentration of power and the smooth and hard surface of the material serves as a metaphor for the physical and moral strength desired by Bwami members. These ivory figurines are passed from generation to generation but only to those of equal level and grade and with the transition comes an element of the spiritual power of all the previous owners.

Anthropomorphic Lega ivories generally range in height from four to seven inches and depict the human form in many different ways.2 Many are highly abstracted and may present the subject as a simple head, a head on a long neck, as a superposition of heads, as a head with an abbreviated body ending in a peg, as a head supported on legs, as a flattened figure with arm raised, or, as in the case of our example, in a more natural, although still abstracted, manner.

It would seem, then, that the item found in the antique store was one of those elite ivories carved for a Bwami member of the highest level, that of lutumbo lwa kindi. But could more be learned about where and when the carving was done and, most significantly, whose hand had been responsible? Unfortunately, for the most part, as in medieval Europe, the artists of Africa have worked anonymously with the result that the vast majority of African artworks remain unattributed. There are a number of reasons for this including the lack of written record, the barrier of language and culture, and the ethnographic focus of scholars who viewed African art works as cultural artifacts rather than as works of art. Additionally, the connoisseurship of collectors (both public and private) has concentrated more upon appreciation than upon identification and classification.

It is, consequently, not surprising that, according to Africanist Frank Willett, "those who approach African art from a purely aesthetic point of view seem until recently not to have regarded the artist as having any real individuality." 3 It was considered, Willett continues, "important to determine the [origin of the piece--a tribal name was usually enough--but the name of the individual artist was not usually sought since it was felt that the tribe as a whole in some vague way produced the style, that the artist was merely expressing with greater or lesser skill the aesthetic conceptions of the tribe." Pointing to the writings of early twentieth-century authorities, Willett cites the commonly held belief that "the African artist is anonymous, an idea which was unquestioningly accepted, and probably responsible for the fact that for a long time no one bothered to ask the names of artists." (4)

Contributing to this lacuna was the general way in which the artist has been regarded in Africa in relation to the objects he creates. In discussing this aspect, Maria Kecskesi and Laszlo Vajda have written that "though field researchers' records contain no statements from which, say, the existence of an African version of the genius theory could be deduced, artistic ambition and a pride in the created object are definitely not unknown among talented African sculptors." (5) The authors note, however, that such sculptors "often look upon themselves 'merely' as good artists, whose business success may have been due in part to assistance from certain spirits. If they seek renown as accomplished sculptors, it is not for the sake of renown itself but for the prosperity and social respect it entails. Yet, though skilled sculptors often do enjoy considerable social respect, not even the most gifted of them are placed on a pedestal." (6)

In Africa, although the names of artists actually are both known and highly respected locally, there is, in contrast to Western practice, no emphasis placed upon associating individual works of art with those who created them. The African emphasis is upon function. The artist fulfills an initial and limited role as fashioner of the object which only can become a "work of art" through the patina of use. Thus, a work of art achieves acclaim among Africans based not upon the reputation of the one who made it but rather upon its proven efficacy. The act of ownership, consequently, is as important as the act of carving. That the artists, themselves, concur with this attitude is borne out by the fact that African art works are neither signed nor marked.

For the past several decades, however, there has been an increasing effort to bring the names of African artists to light and, where possible, to connect those names with specific works of art. This research has been particularly successful in the case of the Yoruba peoples of Nigeria and Benin, where the names of several sculptors are known and have been matched to the pieces they created. (7( These include celebrated masters, such as Aregun (c. 1880-1954), Bamgboshe (died c. 1920), Agbonbiofe (c. 1880-1945) and the "Rodin" of African sculpture, Olowe of Ise (c. 1875-c. 1938). (8)

Progress certainly has been made in retrieving the names of actual artists but what if the artworks cannot be attributed to a known artist? This is more often than not the case with African art. In speaking of the situation in reference to the Baule people of the Ivory Coast, Susan Vogel has pointed to three primary ways in which an African art work may be attributed: 1) the researcher has observed the object in the actual workshop, 2) information connecting a specific work to an artist is available allowing for similar items to be associated with it, and 3) a body of work can be distinguished based upon similarities in style and technique, thus permitting it to be grouped under a name of convenience. (9) This methodology has been long practiced when dealing with the art of Europe. There, it has been customary to group together unattributed art works that have stylistic features in common and to assign them a name of convenience (e.g., Amasis Painter, Master of Athens 581, Master of the Fussener Altarpiece, Amico di Sandro) based upon some favorite subject, supposed place of origin, significant work, or relationship to a known artist. This practice has facilitated a more coherent reconstruction of developing styles and a better understanding of stylistic influences and the patterns of artistic interchange. Africanists, following this example, have begun to apply what essentially are basic "Morellian" techniques to the connoisseurship of African art and considerable success has been achieved. For example, four different Yoruba masks have been connected stylistically and have been assigned to an unknown sculptor who has been given the title "the Anago Master." Identical features found on two Luba headrests have inspired the creation of a "Master of Mulongo" and the shared characteristics of several Baule masks have produced a "Totokro Master." (10) Several Bamana Chi Wara headdress masks have been grouped about the distinct style of an unknown sculptor who has been designated the "Master of the Antelopes." (11) In this way discrete bodies of works are being assembled to serve as reference points in future investigations.

As it turns out, the antique store statuette is one of several maginga sharing common stylistic features. A nearly identical but slightly smaller "twin" to it has been published in a catalogue to an exhibition held in 1994 in Paris at the Galerie Helene & Philippe Leloup (fig. 4). (12) Even the location of the dots on torso, legs, and head is the same. The principal difference appears in the area of the neck which is shorter and, consequently, is encircled by a single necklace. An additional three figurines, formerly in the collection of Jay T. Last and now in the Fowler Museum of Cultural History of the University of California, Los Angeles, clearly come from the same source (fig. 5). (13) Aside from some small differences in decorative patterns, only the color of the surface patination distinguishes one piece from another. Also close in style and concept is a statuette sold in Wurzburg, Germany in 2007 and now in a private collection in Graz, Austria (fig. 6). (14) Almost the same can be said for an ivory figurine in the collection of Erle Loran of Berkeley, California and of one published in 1952 by Ladislas Segy (fig. 7). (15) In the case of the Zemanek, Loran, and Segy examples the principal difference lies in the notching of the legs; in the latter two cases the arms are notched as well. To this list of closely related sculptures can be added a significant figurine collected on site by Daniel Biebuyck in 1952 (fig. 8). Each of these nine ivory figurines displays a physical presence that belies its actual dimensions (the largest stands but 7 1/8 inches tall). The nine examples discussed here belong to one of the more realistic of the sculptural interpretations, displaying features which link it to Segy's Category 2F statuette type which he describes as "having short arms set close to the body" and typified by "the lozenge shape of the head and the zigzag pattern of the legs and arms" which he says "is a very frequent feature of Warega ivories." (16)




When compared to other published examples of Lega sculpture, these nine statuettes stand apart, forming a stylistic unit that displays so many common features that one is tempted to assign their execution to a single individual. They all have cylindrical bodies, short arms hanging close to the torso, short and powerful legs with ledge-like hips and toe-defined feet. They share the same lozenge-based facial treatment, with eyes rendered as encircled dots (bitondi) made with a small caliper (kapiya). All have identically carved "necklaces" and use the same zigzag line to define the mouth. Parallel lines of dots appear on nine of the figures and may represent the beauty marks of scarification. Similar triangular arrangements of dots may represent hair on the Last, Loren, and "antique shop" figures. Chevron striations decorate the arms of five of the figures. Half of them have the tops of their heads flattened to receive cowry shell caps (the shell is intact only in the case of the "antique shop" figure). Surely these nine Lega ivories must have come from the same workshop and it is most likely that the same hand carved at least six of them (the "antique shop" example, its "twin" from the Leloup exhibition, the three Last Collection ivories now in the Fowler Museum, and the Zemanek figurine).

The Lega artist worked in relative isolation passing on his skills to a chosen member of his extended village family. According to Elisabeth Cameron, "the apprentice artist learned to carve in the style of his master, who also was a member of his clan. Styles, therefore, were clan specific." (17) The artist (likely, himself, a member of Bwami) received his commissions from his kindi patrons with the broadest of instructions since the "iconography" of the object would be acquired as it was put into use. Although he worked within an artistic canon, it was broad in scope and there was ample room for self expression. The artworks created were not judged upon their aesthetic merits but, rather, were viewed as instructive implements within the context of Bwami culture.


As already noted, artworks such as the ones discussed here were not considered "finished" when turned over to the patron by the artist but only attained that status through the patina of usage. If appropriately carved and handled, the figurine achieved a status of beauty and goodness comparable to that sought by the Bwami initiate. The sculpture was then said to have achieved the state of bisoga. It is indicative that the Lega have no separate words for "goodness" and "beauty," but unite those concepts in this single word. Such ivory figurines were not intended for public appreciation, but were to be utilized in the secret initiation rituals of the society. Since the figurines produced by the carvers were made specifically for Bwami rituals and were not to be exposed to public view, they were not readily available for imitation. There, apparently, was little contact among artists, or at least, little artistic interchange. Thus, repetition and duplication of stylistic approaches was discouraged and individuality in artistic expression encouraged. Each individual workshop displayed its unique style within the overall Lega canon. That our nine maginga, so similar in their conception and execution, were the product of a single talented artist (and his workshop) now seems certain. But is it possible to discover more about that artist and where and when he was at work?

A partial answer to these questions may be found if we turn our attention back to the figurine collected in the field by Biebuyck in 1952 (fig. 8). Biebuyck says that he obtained the item "from Nkasa, a lutumbo lwa kindi of the Banagabo clan, secteur Bakisi, Shabunda territory..." (18) Biebuyck adds that he was able to trace the provenance of the figurine "back to seven previous owners, some in the Banagabo clan, some in the Beigala and Banakasyele clans."

Just who the artist was who carved our distinctive group of ivory figurines will never be known, but we can assign him a meaningful "name of convenience" to use as a reference in further discussion. When Biebuyck acquired his figurine, he was told that it "represents Keitula, 'the heart of the one who holds the wickerwork rattles.'" Based upon this information, it would seem appropriate that Biebuyck's statuette and the other eight maginga we have considered, be assigned to an artist we can conveniently call the "Keitula Master."

Elisabeth Cameron has noted that, although variations in Lega sculptural styles "were clan specific, ... [the] artist nonetheless had the freedom to interpret the commission within his own personal style (influenced by the clan style), as long as it still served its symbolic role and was visually comprehensible." "Attempts have been made," she adds, "to use style to localize pieces to their places and clans of origin. The problem is that given the movement of artwork within the system of Bwami and clan inheritance, it is almost impossible to know where a piece originated." 19 Despite this caveat, and based upon the testimony provided by Biebuyck, it is likely that the "Keitula Master" was located in or around the mining town of Shabunda, which lies in a loop of the Ulindi River some hundred miles west of the provincial capital of Bukayu (fig. 9).



When was the "Keitula Master" at work? The ownership sequence for his name piece--eight different individuals of lutumbo lwa kindi rank prior to 1952--permits a conjecture. Biebuyck says that "since these sculptures pass from hand to hand and are inherited, they are symbols of continuity in families, lineages and ritual communities, symbols that link the dead to the living members of the group... Initiates can generally trace the ownership of the majority of objects they have back through five to seven names." (20) Maginga such as the nine examples considered here would have been owned by only the most senior Bwami and passed on to their successors at their death. The average life span in the Congo is about fifty years and one might suppose each "generation" of owners to have held lutumbo lwa kindi rank for an average of ten years. Based upon that premise, it seems probable that our artist was producing his sculptures for lutumbo lwa kindi initiates in the mid-to late-nineteenth century. Of course, his dates of activity could have been earlier, since there is no way of knowing if Biebuyck's figurine was in existence prior to the eight successive owners he was able to document in 1952.

At this point, it seems logical to introduce another group of ivory figurines into the discussion, this time nineteen in number. Unlike the pieces we have been considering, whose gender was left in doubt, this category is decidedly feminine with breasts and often genitalia being indicated. This category includes three figurines shown in the 1994 Galerie Leloup exhibition (fig. 10); a figurine previously in the Ratton and Ladriere collections and recently acquired by the Cleveland Museum of Art; a similar example in the Dallas Museum of Art; another, formerly in the Javaux Collection and now in the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium; one formerly in the Camille Duyck collection, Bruxelles; three more in the Jay T. Last Collection of the UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History; two others in the collection of Rene van der Straete in Bruxelles; one in the Ladriere Collection in Paris; two from the Bela Hein Collection; and one from the Chicago collection of Herbert Baker. (21) Another such carving was auctioned at Sotheby's in New York in November 2005 as lot n. 114. Also close in style is a figurine presented in the exhibition "Mit Tieren--von Tieren" at the Bernd Schulz Gallery in Lintfort, Germany in Spring 2005 as lot 69. Yet another, part of the Key Collection in Bruxelles, appeared as cat. no. 708 in the internet catalogue of Afro Fine Art. An amulet-sized figurine, displaying the requisite stylistic features, once in the Konig Collection, Liege, may be added as the nineteenth item in this distinctive group of Lega ivory sculptures.


The stylistic connection of these female figurines with the "Keitula Master" can be seen in the tubular treatment of torsos, the stubby, elephant-like legs, the massive feet with notched toes, the abbreviated arms, the planar faces with encircled dot eyes and open slit mouths with vertical indentations to suggest teeth. All but three have necklaces carved in the familiar zigzag style and dotting also is used to represent scarification and hair. However, features are introduced which are not found on the previous group. These new elements include more defined noses, little donut-like ears that project from the side of the head, the indication of hands and fingers on several of the statuettes, and, of course, the female attributes. These latter features are handled in two ways. On four of the figures the breasts are merged with a shoulder role. On the remainder small knobs suggest the breasts. Similar knobs on all of the figures mark the navel. It should also be noted that their proportions are stockier and that there are more concessions to actual human anatomy (e.g., the additions of navel and ears, and a more realistically rendered nose).

In his catalogue entry discussion of the female statuette in the Tervuren Museum, Daniel Biebuyck emphasizes its "rounded 'doll-like' style." Based upon that description, it is tempting to group these nineteen figurines under a new name of convenience, an artist who might be called the "Ivory Doll Master." For now, however, I prefer to view them as representing a feminine side in the workshop production of our "Keitula Master."

This examination of Lega sculptures has assembled a discrete category of almost thirty ivory maginga executed in a personal style that can be associated with the workshop of a specific artist designated here as the "Keitula Master." This artist was at work for Bwami patrons of the highest rank, probably sometime in the latter half of the nineteenth century in what is now the Shabunda territory of the Sud-Kivu Province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Without doubt more statuettes with similar stylistic features will be added to the present list of sculptures produced by the "Keitula Master." Ladislas Segy believed that Lega "carvings at their best are among the great masterpieces of African art."22 If Segy's enthusiastic appraisal is correct, then the "Keitula Master" might well be counted among the continent's more significant artists.

(1.) Daniel Biebuyck, La Sculpture des Lega (Paris: Galerie Helene & Philippe Leloup, 1994), 92.

(2.) Ladislas Segy states that some forty variations are known. [Ladislas Segy, African Sculpture Speaks, 3rd ed. (New York: Hill and Wang, 1969), 263.]

(3.) Frank Willett, African Art: An Introduction (London: Thames and Hudson, 1971), 153.

(4.) Willett, 36. On this subject, see also Constantine Petridis, South of the Sahara: Selected Works of African Art (Cleveland: Cleveland Museum of Art, 2003), 23.

(5.) Iris Hahner, Maria Kecskesi, Laszlo Vajda, African Masks: the Barbier-Mueller Collection (New York: Prestel, 1997), 21.

(6.) Hahner et al., 21-22.

(7.) For some examples of African artists' names, see Willett, 156, 173, 206, 210-11, 228-37, which illustrate works carved by named Yoruba sculptors.

(8.) See Bryna Freyer et al., Selected Works from the Collection of the National Museum of African Art, I (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1999), 66-69.

(9.) Susan Mullin Vogel, "Known Artists but Anonymous Works: Fieldwork and Art History," African Arts 32, 1 (1999): 42-55, 93-94.

(10.) Vogel, 52-53.

(11.) Hahner et al., notes to plate 1.

(12.) Biebuyck, La Sculpture des Lega, fig. 19.

(13.) They are illustrated in Elisabeth Cameron, Art of the Lega (Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum, 2001), figs. 8.93, 8.95, 8.98.

(14.) This figurine appeared as lot number 481 in the 49th auction of Tribal Art Auction Zemanek-Munster, Wurzburg, Germany, held on 24 February 2007.

(15.) Warren M. Robbins and Nancy Ingram Nooter, African Art in American Collections: Survey 1989 (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989), fig. 1241; and Segy, fig. 417.

(16.) Segy, 263.

(17.) Cameron, 64.

(18.) Daniel Biebuyck, Lega Culture: Art, Initiation, and Moral Philosophy among a Central African People (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), note to plate 84.

(19.) Cameron, 64.

(20.) Biebuyck, Lega Culture, 171.

(21.) The figurines in the Leloup exhibition are illustrated in Biebuyck, La sculpture des Lega, plates 11, 22, 24. The Cleveland ivory (mv. No. 2005.3) is presented in Constantine Petridis, "Good and Beautiful: Newly Acquired Lega Masterworks Enhance the Sub-Saharan African Art Collection" (, 11 February 2008). That in Tervuren (mv No. RG48.28.1) is in Joseph Cornet, Art of Africa: Treasures of the Congo (New York: Phaidon, 1971), plate 218. The one formerly in the Duyck collection is reproduced in Daniel Biebuyck, Lega: Ethique et beaute au coeur de 1 'Afrique (Brussels: KBC Banque & Assurance and SnoeckDucaju & Zoon, 2002). The three now in the Fowler Museum are illustrated in Cameron, figs. S, 8.94, 8.96). The van der Straete examples are illustrated in Cornet, plates 149, 152. That in the Ladriere Collection is in Cornet, 117. The two in the Bela Hein Collection may be found in Bernard de Grunne, Bela Hein: Grande Initie des Ivoires Lega (Brussels, Galerie Bernard de Grunne, 2001), plates 10, 11. The Baker example is shown in African Arts (1970) 43.

(22.) Segy, 65.
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Author:Mack, Charles R.
Publication:Southeastern College Art Conference Review
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2008
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