Lot 129
  • 129

Luluwa Female Figure, Democratic Republic of the Congo

250,000 - 350,000 USD
341,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • wood


J. Werner and Sarah Gillon, London and New York, by 1971
Sotheby's, London, Catalogue of the Tara Collection of African Sculpture formed by Mr. and Mrs. J.W. Gillon. The Property of the Tara Trust, July 15, 1975, lot 79
The Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit (inv. no. "75.56")
Sotheby's, New York, May 4, 1995, lot 109 and cover, consigned by the above
Myron Kunin, Minneapolis, acquired at the above auction


Art Gallery, University of Notre Dame, Indiana, African Sculpture from the Tara Collection, March 28 - May 23, 1971


Time-Life Inc., The Sculpture of Black Africa (film), 1970
Eliot Elisofon, Black African Heritage, Part 1: The Congo (film), 1971
William Buller Fagg, African Sculpture from the Tara Collection, Notre Dame, 1971, pp. 5 and 17, cat. II-3
Werner Gillon, Collecting African Art, London, 1979, pp. 120-121, fig. 151
Constantine Petridis, Context en morfologie van de plastische kunst bij de Luluwa (Zuid-Centraal Zaire), unpublished dissertation, Universiteit Gent, 1997, cat. no. 51
Jean-Baptiste Bacquart, The Tribal Arts of Africa, New York and London, 1998, p. 181, fig. 9

Catalogue Note

The Luluwa people live in south-central Democratic Republic of the Congo, along both shores of the Luluwa river in the north and the Kasai river in the west. Situated between the empires of the Luba, Chokwe, and Kuba, the Luluwa received significant cultural impulses from their neighbors which they converted into a highly sophisticated culture of their own. The name Luluwa covers a number of subgroups whose languages are variants of Chiluba, the language spoken by the Luba people. According to Petridis (2009: 119-122), the Luluwa "are said to have had their origin in Katanga Province in southeastern Congo, emigrating in successive waves between the 17th and 18thcenturies."

With its highly refined naturalism, its harmonious proportions, and its symmetrical scarification patterns, the Kunin female statue is the quintessential embodiment of the Luluwa concept of beauty. Petridis (2009: 127-128) explains: "The special attention devoted to physical beauty [...] was captured by the Chiluba term bwimpe [... which] denotes physical perfection as a sign of moral integrity, thus combining the Western notions of beauty and goodness. The emphasis was placed on cultural or ‘human’ beauty, that is, beauty created by human beings; scarification was one of the supreme expressions of this ideal. [...] the notion of beauty and goodness was expressed through anatomy as well as scarification and other forms of skin beautification. Thus [...] large heads, and high foreheads were considered signs of beauty. [...] Finally, much like the Luba-Katanga [...], the idealized beauty [...] was also meant as an invitation to the ancestral spirits to inhabit the sculptures and use them as intermediaries between the natural and supernatural worlds." For the equivalent belief in the Luba tradition cf. Roberts and Roberts (1996: 84, text to cat. 31).

Another characteristic of Luluwa statuary is the hairstyle of one or more curved braids pointing upwards, usually one protruding from the crown of the cranium. Petridis (2009: 128) elucidates the meaning of the coiffures: "In the Luluwa context the fontanels (soft spots of the cranium of an infant) signified double sight – that is clairvoyance and the ability to discern the invisible in the visible and the past and future in the present.”

A rare feature of the Kunin figure are the heavy-lidded downcast eyes. In Luluwa art this feature is significantly less common than in Luba art. Cf. one figure in The Detroit Institute of Arts (inv. no. "1982.49"), collected in situ by Leo Frobenius in 1905 (Petridis 2009: 132, cat. 97); a second in the Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preussischer Kulturbesitz (inv. no. "III C 3621", Koloss 1999: 224, cat. 148); a third in a private collection, on permanent loan to the Catholic University of Leuven, collected in situ by Karel Timmermans in 1964 (Petridis 2009: 133, cat. 98). Like the Kunin figure, these figures hold a staff or knife in the proper right hand, and a cup in the proper left. Traces of chalk inside the cups suggest that they were used as receptacles for sacrificial substances. Another remarkable feature of the Kunin figure is its crusty multilayered red and white surface. Petridis (2009: 117) explains: "the coiffure, and the body as a whole, was smeared with a mixture of palmoil, red camwood powder, and clay." The surface of the Kunin figure, heavily encrusted and with traces of camwood powder, corresponds thus exactly to this kind of manipulation in a ritual context.

In his discussion of the Kunin figure at the occasion of the 1971 exhibition African Sculpture from the Tara Collection at the University of Notre Dame, William Fagg (1971: 4) notes: "This figure [the present lot] according to Dr. Albert Maesen of Tervuren, a rare and outstanding specimen of the central Luluwa group, appears to be by the same hand as some pieces collected by Leo Frobenius for the Hamburg Museum." Another closely related figure from the same workshop has been widely published, first in 1929 by Philippe Soupault (1929: 209), and entered the Musée Royal de l'Afrique Central, Tervuren, in 1912 (inv. no. "7154").