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Art Through Time: A Global View

Ceremony and Society Art: Stool

» Attributed to the Buli Master, Luba, Democratic Republic of Congo


Artist / Origin: Attributed to the Buli Master, Luba, Democratic Republic of Congo
Region: Africa
Date: 19th century
Period: 1800 CE – 1900 CE
Material: Wood, metal studs
Medium: Sculpture
Dimensions: H: 24 in. (61 cm.)
Location: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
Credit: Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art/Photo by Max Yawni

From as early as the seventeenth century, the Luba people had established a powerful empire in the southeast of what is today the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Through marriage, women had played an important role in the expansion of this empire and the creation of alliances within it. Although kingship among the Luba was believed to be a divinely sanctioned privilege granted only to men, lineage and succession were traced through the female population.

As the bearers of kings, women held a special place of honor in Luba society. In the words of an old proverb, “Only the body of a woman is strong enough to hold a spirit as powerful as that of a king.” Given the divine nature attached to Luba sovereignty, the bodies of women were considered an especially appropriate form for emblems of rule and appear frequently in the iconography of royal ceremonial objects, including staffs, bows, headrests, and stools like the one pictured here.

As in many African cultures, among the Luba, the stool was reserved for the most powerful individuals in a community. Only a king or chief would have owned a stool like this one. Such objects did not always serve a practical function as seating, but were deeply invested with symbolic significance. In fact, the Luba held that all stools were modeled on a prototype possessed by their legendary first ruler Mbidi Kiluwe. Thus, stools came to feature prominently in investiture ceremonies, providing a tangible link between the new king and the great Luba culture hero.

Expert Perspective: Christa Clarke, Senior Curator of Arts of Africa and the Americas, Newark Museum

“The Luba are today—many people would refer to the Luba as a kingdom. There is a centralized society that existed in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo since about the seventeenth century, I believe, until the early twentieth century, and still continues today as there are Luba chieftaincies.

The men are usually the ones who are typically in political office among the Luba, but the art forms overwhelmingly represent women, and part of that is because women played an important role in expanding the kingdom by being married to outlying chiefs. And also, women are believed to be repositories of spiritual power that basically infuses the political system of the Luba. And there are women who have certain roles in Luba royalty where they guard secrets of kingship, for instance. And so you see women featured on staffs, you see women featured on stools. And all of these art forms are used for investiture ceremonies and are one of the ways these ceremonies reinforce the role of women as not only nurturer, but also as supporter of an important political system.”

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

“In Luba art, the female form is a reference to the power behind the throne of a king and also to the power of the women more generally.

When a Luba king died, his successor formed a new kingdom in a new location, and a woman who became possessed by the deceased king’s spirit went to reside in his former capital, which became known as a ‘spirit capital.’ And that woman, called mwadi, became the king, and the new king would pay tribute to her and offer gifts of honor and blessing. And she would remain in that sacred site, and when she died, another woman in her lineage would succeed her. So the memory of king became embodied by a woman.

In fact, all the regalia of a Luba king depicted the female form. The thrones that a king uses are supported by female figures, very similar to the headrests. Staffs and scepters, ceremonial axes, ceremonial cups and bowls—every single item that forms the treasury of a king had some kind of allusion to the female form. It’s because Luba people suggest that only the body of a woman is strong enough to hold a spirit as powerful as that of a king.”

Additional Resources

Blier, Suzanne Preston. The Royal Arts of Africa: The Majesty of Form. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2003.

“The Buli Master: Stool (1979.290).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Web site. (October 2006).

Roberts, Mary Nooter, and Allen F. Roberts. Luba: Visions of Africa. Milan and New York: 5 Continents, 2007.

Roberts, Mary Nooter, and Allen F. Roberts. Memory: Luba Art and the Making of History. New York: Prestel, 1996.

Visona, Monica, et al. A History of Art in Africa. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2003.

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