Democratic Republic of Congo; Luba
Wood, copper, metal, iron; H. 60 1/4 in. (153.04 cm)
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Purchase, Nelson A. Rockefeller Gift, 1972 (1978.412.646)
Staffs of office, called kibango, were owned and displayed by Luba kings and other titleholders as documents of their sovereignty over specific territories. These sculptures recall the original staff bestowed upon the mythic culture hero Kalala Ilunga, first in the line of Luba rulers who founded the wealthy and powerful Luba state in what is today southeastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
In Luba society, women's bodies are considered the ultimate receptacles of spiritual power and the precepts of divine kingship upon which Luba leaders rely. Consequently, representations of the female form are depicted as part of a rich variety of Luba leadership insignia. This staff displays a seated figure at its apex and two faces carved in relief on both sides of the lower panel. The figure at the crown of the staff represents the king's spirit housed in the female body. Her crossed arms draw attention to her breasts, which contain the principles of divine kingship, while her exquisitely decorated skin and elaborate coiffure suggest cultivation and social achievement. The two faces beneath the seated figure refer to the twin tutelary spirits of Luba kingship, Mpanga and Mbanze. Facing in opposite directions, they evoke the quality of circumspection and the ability to communicate between earthly and spiritual realms.
Staffs of office are important historical documents. Read from top to bottom, the sequence of figural and geometric designs trace the lineage of the sovereign and explain the origins of his chiefdom. The staff functions as a sculptural map that illustrates the introduction of divine kingship into the territory from the Luba royal capital. The dynastic progenitor, evoked through the topmost figure, is portrayed leaving the capital (the upper panel), traveling through uninhabited savanna (the round shaft), and finally settling in his own court (the lower panel). Incised geometric designs on the panels represent spiritually significant elements within the landscape. Although most Luba people would have been aware of the type of information these staffs held, only those with the proper training and authority could have actually read and interpreted them.
This staff's shaft is wrapped in bands of copper, a precious metal originating far to the south at the headwaters of the Zambezi River. The burnished metal not only added to the beauty of the piece but also alluded to the ruler's dominance over long-distance trade. Staffs of office were often paddle-shaped, another reference to the importance of riverine commerce to Luba prosperity. The conical iron studs that appear to either side of the seated female figure on the upper panel are tiny replicas of anvils used to pound and shape iron. They are not only a reference to Kalala Ilunga and his father Mbidi Kiluwe, who are credited with the introduction of ironworking to the Luba peoples, but also recall the extended and difficult rites of investiture to which each Luba ruler was submitted. Throughout these processes, new rulers were likened to iron that must be formed and hardened for the difficult challenges they confronted.
Although this artwork appears on the 20th-century segment of the Timeline, it is ascribed a date of 19th20th century.