Published: October 15, 2002
KANSAS CITY, MO. – For the Lega peoples of Central Africa, art is the means of transmitting deep moral values and cultural lessons. “Art of the Lega: ” presents nearly 200 exquisite handmade objects and invites viewers to discover their beauty, symbolism and power. The exhibition will be on view through May 4 at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak Street.
Admission to “Art of the Lega” is free to all. Viewing hours are Tuesday through Thursday, 10 am to 4 pm; Friday, 10 am to 9 pm; Saturday, 10 am to 5 pm; and Sunday, noon to 5 pm.
“Art of the Lega” contains pieces selected from the collection of California physicist Jay T. Last. Since 1962, Last has amassed one of the world’s most comprehensive collections of Lega art. Materials come from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly Zaire.
The Lega peoples pass the wisdom of their culture to new generations through artwork. To the Lega, art is a reflection of the environment, a link to the past, an expression of beauty and goodness, a code of ethics, a badge of leadership and a metaphor for knowledge and wisdom.
“Art of the Lega” explains how art objects, combined with music, drama, proverbs and dance, are tools to instruct men and women the values essential to their culture. These visual tools reinforce multilayered interpretations of verbal metaphors.
Lega art is produced in the context of Bwami, a multilevel moral and ethical guiding force of Lega life. In Lega society, Bwami members exclusively own artwork. These restricted objects are seen only during initiation ceremonies lasting several days. Artworks are intimately associated with their owners, living and dead, and are symbols of continuity for the culture. Lega art is thought to gather power through continued use and handling.
Lega art objects in the exhibition include masks, human figures, busts, animals, spoons and abstract figures. The artwork is produced from natural materials, such as wood, ivory, bone, copal or tree resin, and elephant leather.
Each of these materials has a special meaning within the context of Bwami. For example, use of ivory is restricted to the highest level of Bwami.
Tools used to create art include axes, adzes, knives, chisels, simple drills, calipers and leaves as sandpaper.
Lega peoples strive for certain characteristics in their portable art. To make them easy to hold and manipulate, objects come in three standard measures: the length of one’s middle finger; the length of one’s hand; and the measure from one’s fingertip to one’s elbow. Caressed in initiation ceremonies, Lega artwork has a tactile quality. A glossy surface, achieved by repeatedly rubbing the artwork with a red powder mixed into oil, is preferred. Rubbing ivory pieces with red dust gives them a pleasing color.
Bwami members commission most Lega artwork. They dictate the type of object, material and size. Lega artists are free to add their own stylistic interpretation to the pieces. Despite strict guidelines, Lega art shows great creative range.
A Lega artist learns his trade through an apprenticeship, usually with a member of his mother’s family. Artists do not have to be Bwami members. They must, however, work in seclusion to keep community members from seeing the artwork. Furthermore, artists are not required to know the ceremonial significance of the object or its future meaning.
Individually owned artworks, often passed down from previous generations, are stored in woven shoulder bags. Collectively owned pieces are stored in baskets kept in trust by the most junior member of a given Bwami grade. Their small size helps conceal them easily.
Lega art is nearly impossible to date, but collector Last deduces it was produced over an extended period and passed from generation to generation. Most works in “Art of the Lega” are presumed to be from the Nineteenth Century and were collected in the Twentieth Century.
Bwami is a complex, hierarchical institution that teaches the standards of Legal morality through art objects and metaphors. It fulfills political, economical, social, artistic and religious roles for the Lega peoples of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Bwami teaches life’s morals and wisdom through artwork combined with music, dance, drama and singing. In most Lega societies, Bwami is composed of five levels. Each level includes many sublevels. Initiates progress through a series of teachings to move from level to level. Teachings stress nonviolence, hard work, respect for elders, importance of family and responsibility to the Lega community.
While many Lega reach the lower levels of Bwami, few achieve the upper levels. Advancement requires good character and support from relatives. Also, an initiate must contribute food, shell money, tools and clothing to the members attending the ceremony. These contributions increase in amount as one moves up Bwami.
Bwami membership levels have public and private emblems of rank. Everyone in the community knows a member’s level through word of mouth and by the hat they wear. Hats indicate rank. They are concealed under a more elaborate hat. Other public badges of Bwami rank include belts, armbands, necklaces, pendants, stools, staffs and rattles.
Private insignia include ownership of animal figures, human figures and masks. Third- and fourth-level members can commission these artworks. Possession of ivory artworks is reserved exclusively for members of the fifth level, Kindi.
The show was organized to mimic the order in which Lega art is revealed to a Bwami initiate as he or she advances through the levels.
Visitors entering the exhibition see the public side of Bwami — the hats, necklaces and other objects seen by all in the Lega community. Next, the visitor encounters objects reflecting the first level of Bwami, such as bird beaks and a monkey skull. Visitors then progress to animal figures, human figures and masks. The final room, like the final initiation ceremony, presents ten Lega objects without label copy for quiet contemplation.
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