For Students

Past Exhibitions: 2004

Art of the Lega: Meaning and Metaphor in Central Africa

Oct. 16, 2004–Jan. 16, 2005

Lega
Human figure with raised arm
Lega, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Wood
Promised gift of Jay T. Last, UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History
Photo by Don Cole

This exhibition presents a rich array of masks, spoons, baskets, and abstracted figures that provide a fascinating window into the aesthetics and spiritual life of the Lega peoples of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Central to the imagery of the Lega are references to the Bwami Society, a complex organization that provides political, religious, and social structure to the Lega peoples. Works of art are used by the Lega to teach the many lessons, stories, and values that must be learned by initiates moving up through the ranks of the Bwami Society. The installation itself will mirror for Museum visitors the initiation process of the Bwami Society.

Lega
Initiation basket and contents
Lega, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Plant fiber, wood, ivory, animal teeth, animal horn, and buttons
Height 34cm
Promised gift of Jay T. Last
UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History
Photo by Don Cole

How does a culture transmit its most important values? How are young people initiated into the complex and inflected layers of meaning that define the society to which they belong and that will that shape their adult lives? For the Lega peoples of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, this education is the responsibility of the Bwami Society, a multi-layered association that provides political, religious, and social structure. As young men and women come of age, they enter the lowest level of the Bwami Society. Through instruction that incorporates both verbal aphorisms and visual embodiments of the lessons, the young initiates mature and rise through the levels of the Society. Specially created works of art play a critical part in the teaching and ritual performed by the Bwami Society elders.

Lega
Hat
Lega, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Pangolin Scales, plant fiber, shells
Height 56.5 cm
Gift of Jay T. Last, UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History
Photo by Don Cole

Most Lega art is small and personal in scale, enabling Bwami Society instructors to hold pieces in their hands and use them as mnemonic devices. Because any particular object can be linked to several lessons, it is often impossible to determine each object’s precise meaning within Lega culture outside of its original context. The artistic merit of these works is immediately apparent, however. Although there are set conventions and formulae for the various masks, human figures, animal forms, and spoons the artists create for Bwami Society activities and Lega culture at large, the unique vision of individual artists is revealed through myriad variations that exist on these prescribed themes. In order to fully explore this rich variety of creative expression and to examine the array of imagery employed by the Lega, the works in the exhibition are divided among nine sections, which range from Bwami teaching tools and masks, to found objects, utilitarian pieces, and works of personal adornment. Natural materials and objects, such as shells, horns, and claws, are included, offering a glimpse into the artists’ environment, materials, and possible sources of inspiration. The majority of the works are carved wood or carved ivory, the latter a material considered the exclusive domain of the highest level of the Bwami Society.

Although modest in scale, these works are grand in their expressive power, successfully showcasing the Lega aesthetic and sense of design, which is characterized by a refinement of form and a potent spirituality.

Carole McNamara
Assistant Director for Collections and Exhibitions

Lega
Human bust with multiple heads
Lega, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Wood and pigment
Height 31.5 cm
Promised gift of Jay T. Last
UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History
Photo by Don Cole

Art of the Lega: Meaning and Metaphor in Central Africa was co-organized and produced by the UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, Los Angeles, and The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. The exhibition was curated by Elisabeth L. Cameron, Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of California at Santa Cruz, and a specialist in Central African arts. This exhibition highlights the impressive collection of Lega art of physicist Jay T. Last, who has generously promised these holdings to the UCLA Fowler Museum.

Lega
Mask (lukwakango)
Lega, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Wood and pigment
Height 29cm
Promised gift of Jay T. Last
UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History
Photo by Don Cole

This exhibition is made possible in part by the support of Robert M. and Lillian Montalto Bohlen. Additional support has been provided by the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, the Katherine Tuck Enrichment Fund, and the Doris Sloan Memorial Fund.