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3 / History and Memory

Memory Board (lukasa)
Memory Board (lukasa)
Artist / Origin Luba artist, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Region: Africa
Date 20th century
Material Wood, beads, nails, cowrie shells
Medium: Sculpture
Dimensions H: 7 ¾ in. (19.7 cm.), W: 5 in. (12.7 cm.), D: 2 in. (5.1 cm.)
Location Cantor Arts Center, Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA
Credit Courtesy of the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University

expert perspective

Mary Nooter RobertsProfessor of Culture and Performance, University of California, Los Angeles

Memory Board (lukasa)

» Luba artist, Democratic Republic of the Congo

expert perspective

Mary Nooter Roberts Mary Nooter Roberts Professor of Culture and Performance, University of California, Los Angeles

Cultures around the world had so many different ways to record and remember their histories. Whether they had writing systems or not, they almost always developed complex mnemonic systems, or memory devices, to assist with the protection and the transmission of knowledge.

There’s one culture in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Luba of southeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, that developed one of the most remarkable mnemonic devices known in Africa, and it’s called a lukasa memory board. All of them have geometric abstract patterns on what the Luba call the outside of the board, but the inside of the board has beads and/or iconographic motifs. A court historian would hold the board in his hand and run his fingers over the surface of the beads. And through this kind of tactile contact with the board, it would stimulate remembrance of events, people, and places in the past—what we might call the loci of memory. Luba often associate memory with a string of beads, where you can take each of these events and people in the past and string them together in different ways depending on who you are and to what audience you’re speaking. This is the power of rhetoric and this is one of the ways this board is used.

So, the lukasa memory board might be used to validate a king’s power, or to remind the public of how the king came to power, or to talk about his ancestry. It can be used in many, many different kinds of ways, but it’s just an incredibly complex sort of library of knowledge and information about the Luba past, and I think really challenges misperceptions about history in Africa. So anybody who would say that oh well, this culture did not have writing so they must not have recorded their history is wrong. An object like the lukasa, it’s a merging of the visual with the verbal, because by looking at the object and touching the object, it stimulates oral traditions that are then recited in these very prolonged narratives that might remind you of classical orature.

Classical orators also used spatial devices to remember their speeches. They would actually imagine themselves moving through a building, where each room would remind them of a whole portion of the past. Luba court historians are doing the same thing. By using this board with its spatial dimensions and following the contours of the beads—their color coding and their configurations—he could remember details of a two-hundred-year history that would be almost impossible for anybody else to do just spontaneously off the top of their head. If you saw a line of beads on the surface of the board, it indicated a road or a voyage, maybe some kind of a trip or a journey. If you saw a bead surrounded by a circle of beads, it was usually designation of a chiefdom or a kingdom. The lukasa memory board allowed a court historian or a king to be able to tell an entire narrative of how kingship came to a particular locale and how the spirit mediums preserved the spirit of the deceased king’s power and how they would proceed into the future with all of this lineage and ancestry behind them.” 

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