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Heroic Africans: Legendary Leaders, Iconic Sculptures

September 21, 2011–January 29, 2012

Sublime Chiefs and the Persistence of Memory: The Hemba

We ask of you our ancestors and spirits good health and fertility. Of you, Kibikelo and Kalume, Mbivu and Kabenja, and Kivilile, we ask of you today to give us many children so that we may have much bounty, assure that our eyes continue to see clearly. We ask that the children progress in the world, that they be in good health and visionary. This is our prayer today.

—Prayer to the ancestors and their spirits by a Nkuvu notable living in Sola

The departed to whom such prayers were addressed remained omnipresent in Hemba communities through lusingiti, majestic sculptures that paid tribute to leaders from the vast grass plains extending from the east bank of the Upper Congo River north and south of one of its tributaries, the Luika. Housed in mausoleums that were prominently positioned in front of the chief’s residence but inaccessible to most members of the community, their intended audience seems to have been an otherworldly one.

Lusingiti evoked their subjects through an ideal of physical strength and judicious reflection; the proper names of portrayed individuals were relayed through word of mouth. In Hemba society sight was privileged as the principal means for acquiring knowledge. Ties of kinship were also of exceptional importance. Accordingly, artists emphasized the passages of the head and torso, within which the eyes and umbilicus were focal points. The twenty-two works depicting pre-colonial leaders relating to nine regional styles assembled here constitute the first opportunity to directly assess their artistic excellence.