The Luba are an ethnic group that came together between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, forming a large empire in the southeast of what is today the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The empire existed until the colonial period (approximately 1885) with the support of tributes paid to an increasing number of royal courts and large chiefdoms. The empire expanded by incorporating ever-new areas, but many were never fully assimilated. An extensive trading network of copper, salt, and iron also supported the growth of the Luba empire as its main commodities.
The Luika River, which flows east to west into the Democratic Republic of the Congo, divides the Hemba into the so-called ‘southern’ and ‘northern’ Hemba. Through trade, the Hemba, under the leadership of Niembo and his son Myhiya, arrived in the area east of the upper Democratic Republic of the Congo, called Lualaba. They exchanged salt for iron hoes made in the Luba heartland and wore raffia clothing purchased from the Songye peoples in the West.
At the time of the Luba empire’s eastward expansion under King Ilunga Sungu around 1800, the Hemba lived in an area bounded to the north by the Lukuga River, to the south by the Luvua River, and to the west by the Lualaba. Ilunga Sungu succeeded in making the southern Hemba pay tribute and temporarily incorporated its peoples into the Luba empire until his death.
The history of the Luba and Hemba is intimately intertwined and although the Luba failed to integrate permanently with the Hemba they had a significant cultural influence on them. This is especially evident in the sculptural carvings of both groups. For a long time, research has sought to make a more accurate distinction in assigning works to a particular ethnic group. In the past, the works were generally designated to the ‘Maniema’ area, between the Congo River and Lake Tanganyika. Francois Neyt (1977) demarcated the Hemba, the Luba-Hemba, and the Luba Shankadi territorially and stylistically. Marc Leo Felix (2018) assigned various Luba groups and the Hemba along with the Songye and a variety of other ethnic groups in the Uruwa style zone.
Sacral royalty and the belief in the great ancestors strongly influenced the masterpieces of the Luba and Hemba. The sculptures of both groups show significant differences.
However, only the Hemba produce the world-famous male singiti ancestor figure. Lusingiti figures were honoured in the society assigned to important ancestors. The lineage chiefs were the privileged intermediaries between the living and the deceased. When they were honoured correctly, the deceased brought good health and fertility to the community, playing a role in agricultural and hunting practices.
The feeling of deep serenity that emanates from lusingiti was sought by Hemba ngongo sculptors to highlight the dignity, wisdom and kindness of the respected deceased. Lusingiti were kept in a sanctuary close to the chiefs’ abode and were only taken out of their shrines on rare occasions.
On the other hand, Luba and Luba-Hemba art focuses on the ‘portrait of the woman’ as an expression of religious and spiritual inspiration. Particularly well known are female bowl bearing figures. This type of sculpture represents a spiritual medium holding a divination gourd, mboko, in its’ hands. Important soothsayers called kilumbu, who could be possessed by the royal spirits, vidye, owned these objects.
Ceremonial axes have a woman’s head at the end of the shaft. They played a significant role in the Luba empire as they were given as a sort of fief sign to princes who had joined the Luba empire.
The most well known Luba mikisi mihasi amulets are small, predominantly female figures made of ivory, to protect their wearer by magic (bwanga) against illness, misfortune and enchantment and caryatid figurines on prestige stools and neck rests are also female, signifying the important role of women in Luba society.
The high reputation of women does not refer to secular-political power, but to the political-sacral sphere. This was symbolic in the investiture of a new king. The first wife presented him with a sacred calabash filled with white earth as a sign of his royal power. At the same time, he received the sacred authority of office and the territorial possessions from a woman, both symbolised by the white earth.
The Luba are also known for beautifully crafted bow bearers, lukasa memory boards and small personal protective kakudji figures. The Hemba made magic two-faced kabeja figures.
Early travellers recognised the artistry of Luba and Hemba masters. Unfortunately, at the end of the nineteenth century, it was not considered important to record the names of the carvers. Only much later, by comparing museum collections, did they try to recognise individual workshops. Franz M. Olbrechts started by compiling the works of the “Master of Buli”. Later differentiated local styles (Mwanza, Bene Sungu, etc.) or individual styles were identified, such as the “master of cascading hairstyle”. Occasionally one also found well-known artists such as Kiloko from Bussangu.
The Tumbwe live on the outskirts of the Luba empire in the immediate vicinity of the Buyu, a subgroup of the Luba, and are known for their large male ancestor figures.
J. Agthe pointed out that the Bembe, who live in the area around Fizi in the northeast of the Hemba, were also influenced by works of the Luba and Luba-Hemba. However, their focus was on a much stronger abstraction, especially in their design of heads.
The ethnic groups in the area of the former Luba empire not only influenced each other, but their artistic influence spread far beyond the core region.
Dr. David Zemanek is a German ethnologist, expert of African and Oceanic art and a public sworn auctioneer for non-European art (Auction House Zemanek-Münster, Würzburg). He is author of several articles and publications about African art.