Lega Four-Headed Figure, sakimatwematwe, Democratic Republic of the Congo
- Height: 12 7/8 in (32.7 cm)
Julius Carlebach, New York, acquired from the above
Acquired from the above in the fall of 1963 or spring of 1964 and by descent to the present owner
The poetry inherent in Lega spiritual belief is manifest in all objects attached to the initiation rituals of the bwami society. The bwami is a closed men's organization with graded membership and complex initiation rites that imposes a high moral and philosophical code. Above all, it teaches co-operation amongst its members. According to Vogel (1988: 90), Lega "sculptures are elements of ritual paraphernalia [...]. As proverbs are recited to the initiates by senior members, the figures are held up as mnemonics." The aphorism most often connected to figures like the offered lot featuring multiple heads surmounting an elephant's foot, generally known as sakimatwematwe, is "Mr. Many-Heads who has seen an elephant on the other side of the large river" (Biebuyck 1973: 220).
Nicolas de Kun, a geologist and field-collector active in the Congo between 1948 and 1960, who collected the offered lot in situ, explains the aphorism this way: "A hunter goes across a great river, sees an elephant on the other bank, returns to look for other hunters to help but when he returns he finds that the others have already killed the elephant" (de Kun 1966: 88). This aphorism points to the inability of the individual to accomplish a great task alone, and to the greater good that lies in the community. Rather than starting an effort on his own, the hunter acts wisely in looking for help and eventually gets the task accomplished without any physical effort of his own. Another interpretation is that the Bwami society enables its members through initiation to see in many different directions, a metaphor for the "wisdom, fairness and omniscience of the initiate" (Biebuyck 1973: 221).
Sakimatwematwe or "Mr. Many-Heads" is a fairly rare yet, thanks to its conceptual inventiveness, famous iconography of Lega art. Over the years it has achieved iconic status. Related works are found in several major institutional collections, including: the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. (Preston 1985: 82, cat. 88); The Menil Collection, Houston (accession no. "X 146"; Van Dyke 2008: 205, cat. 100; notably, this figure was also collected in situ by Nicolas de Kun between 1948 and 1960); the Seattle Art Museum, Seattle (formerly Katherine White Collection, accession no. "81.17.862"; Fagg 1968: cat. 271); the New Orleans Museum of Art, New Orleans (accession no. "77.134"; Herreman 2005: 133, cat. 93); The Buffalo Museum of Science, Buffalo (accession no. "C 15565", acquired in 1946 from E. Gustave de Hondt; Wingert 1948: pl. 106a and Vogel 1988: 90); the Fowler Museum of Natural History at the University of California, Los Angeles (gift of Jay T. Last; Cameron 2001: 151, cat. 8.71); and the Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas (formerly Gustave and Franyo Schindler Collection, accession no. "1974.SC.49"; Walker 2009: 64, cat. 10). Another well-known example from the collection of Willy and Berthe Mestach, Brussels, was published on the cover of Daniel P. Biebuyck's monograph Lega: Ethics and Beauty in the Heart of Africa (Biebuyck 2002: 126, cat. 67).