Art Through Time: A Global View
History and Memory Art: Memory Board (lukasa)
The Luba kingdom emerged as a powerful political entity in Central Africa as early as the seventeenth century.
Key to the successful expansion of the Luba was a form of government that combined divine kingship and rule by council. As is often the case with empires built on dynastic rule, politics were closely associated with history for the Luba.
The mbudye association was created in the 1700s as a council charged with preserving and interpreting both the political systems of the Luba state and its history. Lukasa, or memory boards, are mnemonic devices that enable the elite members of this community to recall information concerning genealogy, court ceremony, cultural heroes, clan migrations and the location of things within the royal compound or tribal territory. A lukasamight also map out “spirit capitals,” palaces of deceased rulers abandoned by new kings to become receptacles of the former kings’ memory. Because they are keepers of knowledge critical to sustaining the rituals and authority kingship, members of the mbudye association play an important role in the balance of power. The close association of the lukasa with rulership is attested to by the back of the board, which is carved to resemble a tortoise, a Luba symbol of royalty.
Made of wood planks, some lukasa are simply carved in relief, while others, like this one, are first carved and then studded with beads and shells. All the elements of the board carry symbolic meaning, as do their placement in relationship to one another. “Reading” the lukasa involves holding the board in the left hand and tracing the designs and symbols with the right forefinger. To “read” a lukasa demands much more than verbalizing static meaning conveyed through visual signs. Rather, it calls for the interpretation of those symbols as they relate not only to the past, but also to the present. The ability to decipher and interpret the markings on lukasa, therefore, requires extensive training and is the exclusive domain of those individuals who have passed to the highest levels of the mbudye association.
Expert Perspective: 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 lukasamemory 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.”
Blier, Suzanne Preston. The Royal Arts of Africa: The Majesty of Form. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2003.
Kreamer, Christine Mullen, et al. Inscribing Meaning: Writing and Graphic Systems in African Art. Milan: 5 Continents, 2007.
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.