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Heroic Africans: Legendary Leaders, Iconic Sculptures

September 21, 2011–January 29, 2012

Of Hunter Princes and Cherished Maidens: The Chokwe and Luluwa

Ilunga came where Lueji was, and she invited him to sit by her side. . . . Lueji, surrounded by her female attendants . . . heard the story of Ilunga. How he intended to leave his land for ever, and here he showed them the chimbuia axe, symbol of his status, which was passed round and much admired.

—Lunda epic

The love story of Cibinda Ilunga and Queen Lueji, which led to the founding of the Lunda dynasty, was widely diffused among peoples of present-day Angola and Zambia. Ilunga, a foreign hunter-prince whose prowess enabled him to tame the natural world, personified qualities with which regional leaders—including those of the Chokwe and the Luluwa—sought to be identified.

Chokwe leaders underwent investiture rites that afforded them influence over lucrative resources and the expansion of their populace. A chief's identification with his precursors was reinforced through his ownership of carved images that contained their essence. Commanding works of male leaders and influential females, created by the region's most talented sculptors during the first half of the nineteenth century, emphasize their subjects' dynamism. Bodies are defined in finely carved anatomical detail, and there is a pronounced exaggeration of key passages of the hands, feet, and crowning headdress.

With time, the Chokwe emerged as a formidable regional power, and Chokwe migrants carried their sculptural creations with them as insignia of their status. Contact and commerce with the Chokwe during the second half of the nineteenth century had a transformative impact on the Luluwa economy. They adopted elements of Chokwe culture, including a parallel but distinctive tradition of figurative sculpture. As the autonomy of Chokwe and Luluwa chiefs diminished as a result of European colonization during the mid-nineteenth century, sculptors channeled their efforts into translating the familiar faces of family members into mask forms that represented more enduring ideals.