About the Luba Tribe
The Luba are a warlike people and over centuries they have become a racially diverse people. The diversity is one the major contributors to the richness of the tribal art. Among the Luba, the artist is king. In reverence to their art, Luba artists are so well regarded that they are allowed to carry ceremonial axes with them. The artist's ax is a symbol of the prestige and honor of his craft and skill.
The sculptures of the Luba are heavily themed on women. This is a nod to Vilie who is regarded as the founder of the tribe and the first female spirit. Vilie is also the deity who blesses the Luba with fertility and guarantees their continuity. To honor this tradition, women of the royal household wield immense powers as negotiators of political alliances through marriages.
Of the female statues, there is a strong tendency towards plumpness. This style is also referred to as dodu. However, the rounded form is not the only popular Luba statue style. The buli or long-face style is also a favorite among the Luba. Statues of the latter type contrast sharply against the former. They are elegant, elemental and have elongated faces.
Key stylistic elements of the Luba statue include coffee bean-shaped eyes, tiny eyes, grooved bands over the hairlines and ornamental cicatrices carved in high relief on the surfaces. Recurrent elements of Luba sculpture include the females in these postures: standing, kneeling and sitting with their hands holding their breasts or wrapped around bowls. The chief functions of Luba statues are divination, healing and initiation. Therefore, they mostly belong to ancestor and spirit cults. These cults have women as their guardians.
Luba masks are of two popular kinds. The more popular one is the kifewebe. The kifewebe masks originated from the Luba and are also made by their Songye neighbors. It is an elaborate combination of white and black stripes, often with white stripes over black backgrounds. They are made for and danced by the kifewebe secret cult.
The origin story behind the kifewebe mask identifies its source with the appearance of three spirits from a lake in the region. Of these three spirits, two were male and one was female. The female spirit chose to live in the village among men while the male spirits kept to the bush. However, these male spirits would sometimes visit the village, thrilling the men with their dancing until they begged to be initiated.
Kifewebe masks may be rounded or elongated but they all have linear patterns in white and black. They have broad noses, rectangular mouths and flattened crests. Female kifewebe masks are differentiated from the male by the presence of beautifying geometric patterns such as crosses, dots, triangles and chevrons.
These masks are danced in male-female pairs and are believed to link the spirit world to our world. Their appearances are mostly at times of tribal change such as the death of a chief or the political promotion of an important person. In addition, these masks come out on the nights of full moon to honor their ancestors.
The other kind of Luba masks is the type with ram horns. These are broad, long and bearded. They bear the tribal reverence for the symbolism of the ram which include strength and hardiness.
The diversity of Luba art extends beyond masks and statues. They are also noted for carving stools, staffs, scepters, adze and ax handles, drums, shields, pendants, bellows and pipes. Luba artists are the quintessential woodsmen and they are celebrated for their craftsmanship. It is no wonder then that they produce some of the finest art works out of Africa.
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