Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Kingdoms of the Savanna: The Luba and Lunda Empires

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In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Central African interior witnessed the florescence of three large-scale, multi-ethnic states. Imported crops and technologies as well as new models of leadership promoted strong, centralized governments that subdued neighboring chiefdoms and regulated trade routes, increasing the wealth and relative stability of the region. Client states, incorporated into these empires via warfare and strategic alliances, acquired the political systems and courtly traditions of their overlords. Art forms and insignia associated with imperial rule spread throughout the region.


The Luba and Lunda Empires
The emergence of the Luba and Lunda empires in the seventeenth century had a profound impact upon political and artistic practices in the Central African savanna. The Luba empire's expansion was due to its development of a form of government that was durable enough to withstand the disruptions of succession disputes and flexible enough to incorporate foreign leaders and governments. Based on twin principles of sacred kingship (balopwe) and rule by council, the Luba model of statecraft was adopted by the Lunda and spread throughout the region that is today northern Angola, northwestern Zambia, and southern Democratic Republic of Congo.


Dynastic rulers of the Luba empire traced their ancestry to the mythic Kalala Ilunga, a hunter who was credited with toppling the cruel and despotic ruler Nkongolo and introducing signature elements of Luba culture. Because of their divine status, Luba kings became deities upon their deaths, and the villages from which they ruled were transformed into living shrines devoted to their legacies. The Luba heartland was studded with these landmarks. Official "men of memory," members of the mbudye association, were responsible for maintaining the oral histories associated with these sites and interpreting historical precedent for the benefit of the community and current rulers.


The prestige attached to this vaunted lineage of sacred kings was enormous and rulers of small, neighboring chiefdoms were often eager to associate themselves with Luba culture. In return for tribute in goods and labor, these less powerful rulers were integrated into the royal lineage and adopted the sacred Luba ancestors as their own. Luba courtly traditions, including artistic styles and sculptural forms, were also passed along to client states. Kalala Ilunga was credited with the introduction of advanced iron forging techniques to the Luba peoples. Consequently, skillfully wrought iron axes and spears were important symbols of rule in the Luba empire. An axe (1978.412.370) from the Museum's collection, probably originating from one of the Songye chiefdoms that bordered Luba territory, indicates the degree to which these art forms were spread throughout the area. The sweeping curves and intricate detail of the iron blade complement a handle clad in sheets of copper, a precious metal originating far to the south at the headwaters of the Zambezi River. Central to Luba arts of leadership were mwadi, female incarnations of the ancestral kings. Staffs, headrests (1981.399), bow stands (1978.412.486), and royal seats (1978.412.317) featuring this subject represented the divine status of the ruler and the elegant refinement of his court.


One of the most important polities to adopt forms of Luba culture was the Lunda empire to the south. According to Lunda genesis myths, a Luba hunter named Chibinda Ilunga introduced the Luba model of statecraft to the Lunda sometime around 1600 when he married a local princess and was granted control of her kingdom. Most rulers who claimed descent from Luba ancestors were integrated into the Luba empire. The Lunda kings, however, remained separate and actively expanded their political and economic dominance over the region. By 1650, the ruler mwaant Yaav Naweej had established trade routes from his capital to the Atlantic coast and initiated direct contact with European traders eager for slaves and forest products. At the end of the seventeenth century, Lunda outposts in present-day eastern Angola controlled the regional copper trade, and settlements around Lake Mweru regulated commerce from the East African coast.


In addition to Luba principles of leadership, Lunda rulers also adopted elements of Luba courtly art. Lunda chiefs, wealthy from trade and tribute, commissioned skillful artists from client peoples such as the Chokwe to create these forms. Local rulers claiming allegiance to the Lunda empire embraced them as well, facilitating their further dissemination throughout the region. A chiefly scepter (1978.412.572) carved by an Ovimbundu artisan illustrates the wide distribution of Luba/Lunda artistic traditions. The elaborate body adornment, heavily lidded eyes, and pensive expression of the female half-figure at the top of the scepter recall the mwadi images so pervasive in Luba royal art. Other types of courtly objects from the Lunda empire, such as carved representations of the mythical ancestor Chibinda Ilunga (1988.157), had no Luba precedent; the Luba did not portray their kings and culture heroes in sculpture. The most elaborate and refined depictions of Chibinda Ilunga were created for rulers of the Chokwe chiefdoms that emerged as regional powers in the early nineteenth century.

Alexander Ives Bortolot
Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University