AXA Gallery Exhibition - 09/21/2007
New York, NY – From September 21, 2006 to January 14, 2007, the AXA Gallery will present Art of the Lega: Meaning and Metaphor in Central Africa, an exhibition that explores the role of the arts in Lega society and their importance to the Lega peoples of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Central to the imagery of the Lega are references to the Bwami society, a complex organization that provides political, religious, and social structure for the Lega peoples. Works of art are used by the Lega to teach the many lessons, stories, and values that must be learned by initiates moving up through the ranks of the Bwami Society.
The works in the exhibition range from Bwami teaching tools and masks, to found objects, utilitarian pieces, and works of personal adornment. Natural materials and objects, such as shells, horns, and claws, are included, offering a glimpse into the artists’ environment, materials, and possible sources of inspiration. The majority of the works are carved from wood or ivory, the latter a material considered the exclusive domain of the highest level of the Bwami Society. Although modest in scale, these works are grand in their expressive power, successfully showcasing the Lega aesthetic and sense of design, which is characterized by a refinement of form and a potent spirituality.
Art of the Lega: Meaning and Metaphor in Central Africa was co-organized by the UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, Los Angeles, and The Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City. The exhibition was curated by Dr. Elisabeth L. Cameron, Associate Professor of Art History at the University of California at Santa Cruz. It highlights the impressive collection of Lega art of physicist Jay T. Last, who has generously promised these holdings to the UCLA Fowler Museum. The exhibition is presented in New York by the AXA Gallery and the Museum for African Art, New York. AXA Gallery is sponsored by AXA Equitable. Additional assistance has been provided by AXA Art Insurance Corporation.
A first encounter with a work of Lega art can have meaning for any viewer. In addition to the impressive grace and sophistication of the abstracted sculptural forms, there is something inexplicably understandable in the smooth surfaces of an ivory spoon or the expressive features of a carved wood face. To the Western viewer, the gesture or posture of a figure may communicate notions that seem familiar, yet are hard to put into words.
However, a member of the Lega association known as Bwami would have no trouble articulating the meaning. For the Lega peoples of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, every work of art is associated with proverbs that, when part of a ritual combination of poetry, dance, art, and song, impart wisdom to the society member. Lega sculpture conveys the ethical, social and political values of Lega culture. The meaning of these beautiful objects and their role in Bwami culture is the subject of the exhibition Art of the Lega: Meaning and Metaphor in Central Africa.
The men and women in Lega culture enter the centuries-old Bwami society to learn skills and wisdom for life that are taught to initiates through the art. These elegantly carved pieces are passed down through the generations and kept private by the members of the many levels of the organization. From the insignia of membership and found objects used in the early stages of initiation, to zoomorphic figures and figural sculptures that reflect age and wisdom, Bwami is a life-long path. It teaches members of Lega society that moral goodness begets beauty and that knowledge is power.
The proverbs associated with the works may vary according to the context in which they are used, and often the sculptures represent metaphors for life lessons. For example, an anthropomorphic sleeping mat is a recurring Lega motif that implies laziness or sexual laxity. A popular saying compares a swarm of red ants to a sleeping mat. A sexually promiscuous person is also understood as a sleeping mat and is likened to a swarm of red ants that can create disorder in a community. The saying that is most often used in association with this sculpture, called “Mr. Sleeping Mat,” is “I used to love you; fondling destroys good ones; it has destroyed Katanda (mat).”
Comprising five levels for men and three for women, Bwami is a voluntary association open to all Lega. Bwami influence encompasses the breadth of a person’s life. As the Lega say, “it is something that sticks and leaves a trace.” Most men and women enter the beginning levels of Bwami, but few reach the highest rank, known as Kindi. Character, kinship support and participation in initiations dictate one’s advancement in Bwami. This lifelong educational process requires years of study with respected teachers and the successful completion of a series of initiatory rites that combine music, dance, gesture, proverbs, and the visual arts. As the initiate interprets a precise combination of these elements, their knowledge of Bwami truths is revealed and their achievements honored.
As one moves through the ranks of Bwami, he or she is given fewer verbal lessons by which to interpret the art. Moving higher through the association means understanding the lessons of an object and its proverbs on a deeper and more intuitive level. The exhibition is organized in much the same way. Mirroring the sequence of Bwami teachings, the art is presented in context with proverbs and photos of Bwami ritual. As the viewer navigates the galleries, he or she encounters fewer and fewer didactic materials so as to begin to perceive the work in a more visceral way.
The artists who created objects for Bwami worked primarily in seclusion from other artists and were taught through a system of apprenticeship. Figures were carved on commission from high-ranking Bwami members. An artist would be given limited information about the gender, size and gesture of the work of art, as well as the materials needed, generally wood, bone or ivory. The sculptures, therefore, are the result of great artistic freedom, and amidst a uniformity of dimension and theme there exists a wealth of stylistic variety. In general the small figures have a statuesque, monumental quality that relays their tremendous value in Lega culture. Most of the pieces have acquired a lustrous patina from extensive use and wear. Ivory was often rubbed with red dust to give it color; and many ivory surfaces have been repeatedly oiled, rendering a soft buttery texture.
Although the exact date of each work is unknown, most probably were made during the 19th century or earlier and were collected during the 20th century. Due to civil strife in this region for the past 100 years, particular histories of the works can no longer be reconstructed. From the mid- to late-1800s, the Lega and adjacent peoples were raided for the Indian Ocean trade in slaves and ivory. In 1885 the Lega were brought into the Congo Free State, which became the Belgian Congo in 1908.
To this day, the Lega live in an isolated and mountainous region that has long resisted governmental control. Belgian administrators seeking to integrate Lega peoples into colonial society considered Bwami a “threat to tranquility and public order” because it represented forms of political organization outside colonial norms. Authorities outlawed Bwami in 1933 and again in 1948, and Lega arts and ritual practices changed radically. Since Congolese independence in 1960, the Lega and other Congolese have suffered from a tumultuous history of civil strife that continues today. Yet as the brilliant objects of this exhibition suggest, profound wisdom and an acute sense of self and community characterize Lega life, and one can hope that such resourcefulness will carry the Lega through the trials they currently experience.
The UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History explores art and culture primarily from Africa, Asia, the Pacific, and the Americas, past and present. The Fowler is nationally recognized for its development of highly contextualized interpretive exhibitions as well as for its scholarly publications and innovative public programming. It has one of the finest collections of African art in the world and has traveled many significant thematic exhibitions on a range of historical and contemporary topics. For information please see www.fowler.ucla.edu or call (310) 825-4361.
The Museum for African Art is one of the premier institutions in the United States devoted to organizing exhibitions of traditional and contemporary African art of the highest aesthetic and scholarly quality. Currently located in an interim space in Long Island City, Queens, the Museum for African Art is building a new permanent home on Manhattan's Museum Mile at 110th Street and Fifth Avenue. For information please see www.africanart.org or call (718) 784-7700.
AXA Gallery showcases works from all fields of the visual arts, with a special interest in exhibitions that would not otherwise have a presence in the city. The gallery is located in the atrium lobby of the AXA Equitable Tower, 787 Seventh Avenue at 51st Street, in New York City. Hours are Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Saturday, noon to 5 p.m.; closed Sundays. Admission is free.
For reproductions and further information, please contact:
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