By Heinrich Schweizer
Luba sculpture is one of the pivotal artistic traditions of sub-Saharan Africa. Admired in the West since the late nineteenth century for a beauty and elegance perceived as corresponding to the classical canon of ancient Greek and Roman art, Luba “artistic forms have been celebrated among the greatest of African artistic traditions” (Roberts and Roberts 2007: 12). Originating from a highly sophisticated system of interdependent kingdoms and chiefdoms where political power was intimately intertwined with religion, the greatest Luba artworks were created for kings and reflect the deepest level of Luba spiritual thought and cosmology.
Together with his peer and contemporary, the Buli Master, the Warua Master is one of the two most famous Luba artists and seems to have worked exclusively for Luba royalty. The male statue offered here is unique in the Warua Master's œuvre and rightfully considered to be the artist’s greatest masterpiece. Published and exhibited numerous times throughout the past four decades, it has inspired some of the greatest connoisseurs of African art in their work, including Philippe Guimiot, Jacques Kerchache, and Ezio Bassani. The Male Statue by the Warua Master is one of the most iconic works of Congolese sculpture.
A cluster of intersecting clan and lineage groups in the northeast of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Luba were consolidated into a federation of kingdoms sometimes in the sixteenth or seventeenth century, according to oral tradition by the mythical hero Kalala Ilunga. The political power of Luba kings was inseparably linked to their spiritual authority, and both were embodied in and expressed through the ownership of sacred objects. The Male Statue by the Luba artist known as Warua Master is such an object of royal paraphernalia, and widely acknowledged as the finest of its kind.
Objects of Luba royal paraphernalia included, among others, stands to hold the king’s hunting bow, stools on which the king would sit during his investiture and certain other rituals, and staffs of office held as signs of prestige. Among the most sacred of a king’s possessions, these objects were stored in the royal treasury and rarely if ever shown in public. They were guarded by a female dignitary, the kyabuta, received regular offerings of palm oils, and on certain occasions were brought to a special shrine house containing the relics of past rulers, where their spirits were believed to be present (Schweizer 2014: 212).
In Luba culture special attention was devoted to physical beauty as a sign of moral integrity, a concept described by the Chiluba term bwimpe which, however, implies man-made (created, artificial) rather than natural (inborn) beauty. Roberts and Roberts (in Roberts and Roberts 1996: 85, text to cat. 31) note: “In Luba belief, beauty is not innate but is created over the course of a lifetime. Physical perfection reflects moral perfection. The body is a canvas on which to work: one makes oneself beautiful through cosmetic adornments and manipulations that Luba people consider aesthetically and spiritually pleasing.”
Female imagery is prevalent in Luba religious art in general and in royal paraphernalia in particular. This can be explained in multiple, not mutually exclusive ways. First, the female image pays tribute to the general role of women as bearers and nurturers of life and their fundamental importance to society. Second and more specific to royal objects, female imagery also acknowledged that even though the ruler was male (and succession followed for the most part patrilineal descent, at least in the Luba heartland, see Roberts with Petit in Roberts and Roberts 1996: 212 and 214), his political and more importantly spiritual power passed through his mother (see also Bassani in Bassani, Zanobini and Zanobini 1990: 113). Third, it was believed that only a woman’s body could be strong enough to contain a spirit as powerful as a king’s. Luba religious statuary was conceived as temporary vessel for a spirit, and for this reason sculptures very often incorporate images of females as a way to entice the spirit to reside in the sculpture. Combining this idea with the concept of bwimpe, the proliferation of female imagery on royal paraphernalia may well be seen as both metaphorical sign of royalty and as offering a metaphysical home to an ancestral king’s spirit. In this sense, the female image is the king’s alter ego.
While the female image is abundant in Luba art, male figures are exceptionally rare. They are mostly known from areas at the periphery of the Luba heartland and give testimony to a vivid cultural exchange between the thriving Luba empire and its neighbors, either as commissioned works created by Luba artists for patrons from neighboring cultures where the iconography of male figures was customary, or as cultural imports and appropriations of an iconographic theme from a non-Luba tradition – in both directions (see for example a Luba-esque Tabwa statue representing the ancestor of chief Lusinga, acquired by Emile Storms in 1884 as war booty during a raid of Lusinga’s village and today at the Musée Royal de l’Afrique Central, Tervuren, inv. no. “RG.31660”, Roberts in Roberts and Roberts 1996: 228).
Whereas the male gender of the present figure as well as the posture of hands held to the abdomen relate to Hemba ancestor figures, the design of the openwork four-braided hairstyle and the iconography of the tongue emerging between slightly parted lips are typically Luba. The latter feature, a trade-mark of the Warua Master and visible in all but one of his works, is otherwise seen for example on a female caryatid stool in the Musée Royal de l’Afrique Central, Tervuren (inv. no. “RG.23137”, MRAC 1995: 194-195, cat. 161), a headrest with female figure in the same museum (inv. no. “RG.551”, MRAC 1995: 218, cat. 179), and a freestanding female figure in the University of Iowa Museum of Art (The Stanley Collection, inv. no. CMS.298”, Roberts and Roberts 1996: 99, cat. 37). The Warua Master is one of very few Luba artists to represent male figures with this feature, namely the present statue and a male-female janus-figure in the Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin (inv. no. “III.C.19996”). In her dissertation "Luba Art and Statecraft: Creating Power in a Central African Kingdom" (1991, published under the name Mary H. Nooter, on file with the author; p. 250), Mary Nooter Roberts suggests that a slightly protruding tongue could be interpreted in Luba culture as an invitation to courtship and an indicator of readiness for marriage. In the context of a male figure this might be translated as an invitation and offering to spiritual power, presumably that of a royal ancestor, to enter and reside in the sculpture the same way that a woman would invite a man to courtship and display her readiness to marry.
The gender ambiguity of the present figure in exhibiting an iconography otherwise associated with females is not at all unusual for Luba artworks. Roberts (in Roberts and Roberts: 122: text to cat. 147) notes: “Concepts of gender and power are inextricably linked in Luba thought. Male and female elements merge in the exercise of leadership, when men enact the visible overt side of power and women its covert, secret side. Gender ambiguity pervades Luba royal prerogative, where kings are incarnated after death by women, are depicted on insignia as female figures, and wear women’s coiffures on their enthronement day. Women’s ability effectively to contain [a] spirit and to guard royal secrets accounts for their crucial roles in dynastic history as political and religious mediators, and in visual representation as embodiments of spirit and cosmological order.”
Based on these observations one can suggest for the present figure that it represents a royal male ancestor and was conceived as metaphysical locus of his spirit (same interpretation as royal ancestor, without further explanation: Bastin in Debbaut, Favart and Geertruyen 1988: 304; undecided Roberts with Petit in Roberts and Roberts 1996: 228, text to cat. 102).
The Warua Master
The name “Frobenius’ 1904 Warua Master” has first been used by Susan Vogel (1986: 173-174) in her discussion of a Luba bow stand previously in the collection of Carlo Monzino, and subsequently in the derivative forms “Master of Warua” and "Warua Master" by Ezio Bassani (in Bassani, Zanobini and Zanobini 1990) and Mary Nooter Roberts and Allen F. Roberts (in Roberts and Roberts 1996). The name was chosen in reference to a male-female janus-figure in the Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin (inv. no. “III.C.19996”) which was collected by the German ethnographer Leo Frobenius in 1904 and labeled by him as “Warua”. While the name has been criticized as too vague and non-descriptive (“Warua” is the Arabic pronunciation of “Baluba”, i.e., “the Luba people”, and was widely used at the time for both the inhabitants as well as the territory west of Lake Tanganyika and north of Lake Moero), none of the other suggested names of convenience (Neyt 1993: 84, Master of the Court of the Prince of Soppola; Grunne in Guimiot 1995: text to pl. 32, Master of Soppola; Grunne 2001: 190, Master of the Kunda) convince as they are either just as vague and non-descriptive (Grunne 2001, especially since also the Buli Master is believed to have been a member of the Kunda clan; see Roberts in Roberts and Roberts 1996: 232, text to cat. 107), or not sufficiently supportable by evidence (Neyt 1993; Grunne in Guimiot 1995). Vogel’s (1986) cursory discussion was a first step towards a definition of a corpus of works by the master’s hand, a task that was more fully developed four years later by Ezio Bassani (1990) and further refined by Mary Nooter Roberts and Allan F. Roberts (1996) and Bernard de Grunne (2001).
The Warua Master seems to have lived not far from his famous peer and contemporary, the Buli Master, who has been variously identified as Luba (Roberts and Roberts 1996: 244-245, cat. 111), Luba-ized Kunda (Roberts and Roberts 1996: 232-233, cat. 107) and Hemba (Schweizer 2014: 228-231, cat. 92). Both artists created works that cross between Luba and Hemba traditions: in the case of the Buli Master these are tall male ancestor figures (Hemba), female caryatid stools (Luba and Hemba), bowl-carrying figures (Luba and Hemba) and female caryatid neckrests (Luba); and in the case of the Warua Master bow stands (Luba), female caryatid stools (Luba and Hemba), and a male and female janus-figure (Hemba), to name but a few. The origin of the Warua Master from the Luba-Hemba border region has also been suggested by Roberts (in Roberts and Roberts: 228-230, texts to cats. 102 and 103).
In his study of the Warua Master, Ezio Bassani (in Bassani, Zanobini and Zanobini 1990: 115-116) points to specific body proportions as well as the special treatment of the head as hallmarks of the artist’s individual style: “Still more forceful analogies can be found in the vigorously-carved heads, dominated by huge domed foreheads, marked off by the wide regular arch of the eyebrows, the coronet-shaped hairline going from ear to ear, and especially in the imposing and at the same time extremely elegant hair gathered behind into two plaits formed into a cross. This kind of hairstyle is present in many carvings from this area, and is part of the traditional customs of both men and women in the Luba and nearby Hemba tribes. Constructed from hair, reeds, clay and oil, it is designed to last over a long period, and therefore headrests were presumably used to stop it being harmed during sleep. Visiting the area in 1873, V.L. Cameron (the second European after Livingstone, who had passed through there a few years before), recorded the existence of hairstyles of this kind in the following terms: ‘We came to the Waguhha, which are simply a branch of the great nation of the Warua... They dress their hair in a very elaborate manner, dividing it into four portions, each of which is worked into a plait turned over their heads with the ends doubled back so as to make a sort of cross of plaits, and the edges are ornamented with cowries, beads, and other things’. If the hairstyle was such a distinctive feature of the Luba that E.C. Hore wrote in 1882 that these people could be called ‘the hairstyle people’, the plastic solution invented by the author of the works we are examining here [= the Warua Master] is unmistakeable. It is enough to note the discreetly suggested four-lobed scansion, the protuberant plait-ends and especially the particular elongations downwards which balance perfectly the movement of the breast when the figure is seen from the profile.”
Taking these observations as point of departure for a stylistic analysis and paying special attention to some of the artist’s so-called unconscious traits (Morellian method), the corpus of works by the Warua Master consists of eight works where attribution is unquestionable, and another two where the margin of departure from the core stylistic traits is large enough to cast doubt on the authorship, but at the same time small enough to attribute authorship to his workshop. The works unquestionably by the master are:
A royal bowstand previously in the collection of Carlo Monzino and first documented in the collection of Georges de Miré in 1931 (Bassani’s fig. 1);
a second royal bowstand in a private collection (Bassani’s fig. 2);
a third royal bowstand in the collection of Drs. Daniel and Marian Malcolm, first documented in 1956 (Bassani’s fig. 3);
a fourth royal bowstand in the Museum der Weltkulturen, Frankfurt, acquired in 1942 (inv. no. “N.S.33.8.34”, Bassani’s fig. 4);
a royal stool in the Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, previously in the collection of Katherine White and collected by Roger Castiau in 1916 (inv. no. “81.17.876”, Bassani’s fig. 6; Roberts with Petit in Roberts and Roberts 1996: 222, text to cat. 98 argues that this stool is unfinished which could have implications on the artist’s presumed period of activity during the 19th century; however, on first hand inspection the stool’s surface seems to be similar to that of the stool preserved at the University of Pennsylvania, see below, with the difference that the latter has retained its original patina whereas it was cleaned off in the case of the Seattle stool, consistent with the aesthetic preference of some early collectors);
a second royal stool in The University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, acquired in 1919 from Charles Vignier, Paris (inv. no. “A.5101”, Bassani’s fig. 7);
a male figure, previously in the collection of Baudouin de Grunne (the present lot, Bassani’s fig. 9);
and a male and female janus-figure in the Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin, collected by Leo Frobenius in 1904 (inv. no. “III.C.19996”, Bassani’s fig. 11; the name-piece of the Warua Master).
The two works with tentative attribution to either the Warua Master or his workshop are a royal stool in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (inv. no. “2006.18”, Bassani’s fig. 8; the deviation from the core stylistic traits consists in the diminutive, medially compressed volume of the head, the outer curvature of the lower arms with pronounced elbows, the width of the lower arms which leave the “ideal” square as defined by Zanobini and Zanobini in Bassani, Zanobini and Zanobini 1990: 74, Scheda 8, the stronger upper arms and the greater volume of the body scarification) and a female figure in the Musée Royal de l’Afrique Central, Tervuren (inv. no. “RG.26633”, Bassani’s fig. 10; the deviation consists in the volume of the head versus the shoulders, especially when compared with the bowstands, the angularity of the shoulders as well as the treatment of the mouth, also lacking the protruding tongue).
The Genius of the Warua Master
The outstanding accomplishments of the Warua Master in terms of sculptural innovation have first been pointed out by Ezio Bassani (in Bassani, Zanobini and Zanobini 1990: 110 and 114-115): “The works of a great artist from the Luba tribe (on the lines of the Buli Master) provide both a fascinating and fruitful field of inquiry. […] In his discussion of the Philadelphia stool (no. 7), H.V. Hall already remarked in 1923 that the carver had ‘subordinated his realism to the structural requirements of this piece of furniture, and in doing so has turned out an object really elegant in outlines and proportions’. With great lucidity the scholar highlighted the carver's extraordinary capacity, visible in all his works, to reconcile needs imposed by having to develop a theme within the confines of a restrictive tradition with his own inner urge towards absolute geometric precision. The result was that he created works revealing a powerful and disciplined structure, a crystalline purity, as Susan Vogel wrote, where the application of a very personal canon seems to be exalted by a proud dignity. But beyond this general hallmark, the works reveal precise analogies both in the way specific problems of composition have been resolved as well as in many details, with the result that the whole effect transcends the norms laid down by tradition and reveals a great artist at work.”
In their study of the corpus of works by the Warua Master, Teresa and Valerio Zanobini (in Bassani, Zanobini and Zanobini 1990: 31-97 with 121-164) established with great accuracy that all his works follow a profoundly geometric composition reflecting the artist’s individual style (op. cit.: 161): “He develops a form of geometry which is strictly related to his style and which accounts to a greater degree for the refined articulation of all the component parts of his works.”
Indeed, all works by the Warua Master are distinguished by their strong adherence to geometric principles. The body of the present statue is structured vertically into three forms: the outlines of legs and arms form rectangular fields, the head an ellipse. The lower rectangle formed by the legs is of vertical orientation, the upper rectangle formed by the arms lies horizontally. The artist creates great harmony in rendering the width of the arms, measured at the outside of each shoulder, identical to the distance from the toes to the hips; at the same time the distance from the lowest point of the hands to where the shoulders meet the neck is identical to the distance between the outer sides of the legs. From this follows that the artist works with two rectangles of identical length and width but that he has positioned them in a 90 degree angle to each other. This ingenious use of regular geometric forms and shift of position creates tension, rendering the body still and dynamic at the same time. By doing so the Warua Master creates an arresting image of both gravitas and power.
Even more fascinating is an analysis of the harmonious facial proportions which, as the cited passage by Bassani correctly implies, are the signature of the Warua Master’s unmistakable style. The tangent connecting the upmost point of the eyebrows is a horizontal line dividing the face from the apex of the forehead to the chin into two exact halves: see fig. 5. While the upper half is plain, featuring only the forehead, the lower half is visually dense as it contains all facial features. Similar to the dynamism of the body which was created by positioning two identical rectangles at a ninety degree angle above each other, here the Warua Master uses the juxtaposition of visual void and density to create tension.
Furthermore, the face is inscribed into a perfect ellipse of vertical orientation. The upper half of the ellipse follows exactly the outline of the forehead from its apex to about the line dividing the face into upper and lower half. In the lower half the outline of the face withdraws subtly to the inside. However, it is the lowest point of the beard that falls with mathematical precision onto the nadir of the ellipse. Inside the face, eyebrows and jawbones create two nearly elliptical shapes of horizontal position which follow the same length and width ratio as the vertical ellipse into which the face is inscribed. Again, the Warua Master is positioning forms of the same basic geometric type at a ninety degree angle, only this time there are differences in size and the smaller shapes are inscribed into the larger, thus creating visual tension.
In light of these strong inherent tensions it is surprising that the face overall exudes so much tranquility and serenity. How does the artist do this? The answer has to do with the position of the eyes and is mesmerizingly mathematical (see fig. 4): inscribed in the two smaller, horizontally positioned quasi-ellipses are laterally wide and medially narrow eyes. The virtual horizontal line connecting their inner corners of these eyes (i.e., running right through their middle) bisects the length of the face such that the distance from this line to the bottom of the neck is equal to the distance from this line to the top of the forehead, is equal to the distance between the outer points of the two horizontal quasi-ellipses. We may define this distance as b.
However, it is the relation of the lowest point of the beard to the virtual line connecting the eyes that renders the composition in such “perfect balance”. We may define this distance as a. As shown, a and b are measures relating the apex and nadir of the vertical ellipse defining the face to the virtual line connecting the eyes.
The ratio of the distances measured by a and b corresponds to a formula which is well-known in aesthetic studies and art history as the golden ratio of proportion. It has been observed in ancient Egyptian sculpture, Greek architecture, early medieval painting and was propagated widely during the Italian Renaissance, most famously in Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man (1492) as manifestation of the divine spark visible in the greatest masterpieces of creation. This ideal proportion is mathematically defined by an irrational number that is approximately 1.618 and most often replaced by the Greek letter Φ.
As fig. 4 and the above show, a number of the aesthetic choices made by the Warua Master follow the golden ratio with an uncanny mathematical precision. While we don’t know whether this is a result of intuition or calculation, the Warua Master’s use of geometry is singular in Luba art, introducing a radical innovation to the artistic legacy of an entire people. The geometric sophistication and harmony found in works by the Warua Master was rivalled few times in history, never surpassed. Looking at sculptures by Constantin Brancusi, such as Portrait of Mademoiselle Pogany (1912), which is considered ground-breaking for Western art, we cannot help but feel humbled in the face of the genius of the Warua Master who created his body of work thousands of miles away and one to two generations prior to Brancusi, and more than a hundred years before Western scholars began to understand his genius.
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