Lot 4
  • 4

Luba Female Power Figure, Democratic Republic of the Congo

250,000 - 350,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • wood
  • Height: 12½ in (31.5 cm)


Baron Henri Lambert (1887 - 1933), Brussels
Private Collection, by descent from the above
Sotheby's, New York, May 10, 1988, lot 81
Daniel and Marian Malcolm, Tenafly, New Jersey, acquired at the above auction with the assistance of Hélène and Phillippe Leloup, Paris and New York


Palais des Baux-Arts, Brussels, L'Art nègre, November 15 - December 30, 1930
Palais du Heysel, Brussels, Brussels Universal and International Exhibition, April 17 - October 19, 1958
Museum for African Art, New York, Memory: Luba Art and the Making of History, February 2 - September 8, 1996; additional venues:
National Museum for African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., October 30, 1996 - January 26, 1997
Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York, July 26 - October 5, 1997
Davis Museum & Cultural Center, Wellesley College, Wellsesley, Massachusetts, February 5 - June 7, 1998
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Art and Oracle: African Art and Rituals of Divination, April 25 - July 30, 2000


Henri Lavachery and Joseph Maes L'Art nègre, Brussels, 1930, p. 30, pl. 28
No author listed, Traditional Arts: Brussels Universal Exhibition 1958, cat. 242 (measured with base)
Mary Nooter Roberts and Allen F. Roberts, Memory: Luba Art and the Making of Hisotry, New York, 1996, p. 91, cat. 35
Alisa LaGamma, Art and Oracle: African Art and Rituals of Divination, New York, 2000, p. 77 (not illustrated)
Mary Nooter Roberts and Allen F. Roberts, Luba, 2007, pp. 119 and 133, pl. 59
Heinrich Schweizer, Visions of Grace: 100 Masterpieces from the Collection of Daniel and Marian Malcolm, Milan, 2014, p. 215, cat. 86

Catalogue Note

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 sculpture has “been celebrated among the greatest of African artistic traditions” (Roberts and Roberts 2007: 12). 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.

Female imagery is prevalent in Luba art. In this matrilineal culture it was believed that only a woman’s body could be strong enough to contain a truly potent spirit. Special attention was devoted to female beauty as a sign of moral integrity. The pertinent Chiluba term bwimpe implies man-made (created, artificial) rather than natural (inborn) beauty and comprises geometric scarification marks, elaborate hairstyles, as well as particularly dignified postures, all as seen on the Malcolm statue. Roberts and Roberts (in Roberts and Roberts 1996: 85, text to cat. 31) explain: “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.” Luba statuary was often intended as temporary vessel for a spirit, and for this reason sculptures very often are, or incorporate, images of beautiful females as a way to entice spirits to reside in the sculptures.

The Malcolm Luba statuette is one of the most masterful renderings of bwimpe.  Her hands are positioned in a gesture of reverent self-offering.  Her introverted facial expression with downcast eyes symbolizes “the inward side of Luba feminine power. Downcast eyes are a reference to insight, as well as to the humility that a person must exercise before the bavidye spirits [...]” (Roberts in Mack 2000: 130). The artist of the Malcolm statuette depicts a subtle smile, thus interpreting bwimpe as a stage of blissful devotion, where the female figure presents herself to the spirit world and becomes one with it.

The early collecting history and highly refined style of the Malcolm figure suggests that it is of great age, presumably dating to the first half of the 19th century, and that it was made for a person of very high rank. 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. Objects of Luba royal paraphernalia, among the most sacred of a king’s possessions, 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). The Malcolm female statue, whose magical properties are evident through the placement of materials believed to have supernatural powers (bishimba) into the coiffure and ears, could very well come from such a royal context.

For other closely related Luba female figures cf. a standing female figure in the British Museum, London (inv. no. “1910-441”, acquired in 1910, Roberts and Roberts 1996: 84, cat. 31); a second standing female figure in a private collection (Neyt 1993: 140-141); a third standing female figure in the Detroit Institute of Arts (collected in situ by Leo Frobenius in 1905, Petridis 2009: 132, cat. 97); a kneeling female figure in a private collection, previously in the collection of Alan Mann (Neyt 1993: 142); a bow rest with female figure in the Museum für Völkerkunde, Vienna (inv. no. “56626”, Neyt 1993: 60); another bow rest with female figure in the Etnografisch Museum, Antwerp (inv. no. “A.E.722”, Neyt 1993: 65); a female caryatid stool in the Musée Royal de l'Afrique Centrale, Tervuren (inv. no. “17194”); a bowl with two female figures in a private collection (Roberts and Roberts 1996: 44, cat. 11, collected by Van den Boogaerde between 1916-18); a royal scepter with female figure in The University of Iowa Museum of Art (The Stanley Collection, inv. no. “CMS 546”); a royal spear with female figure in The Field Museum, Chicago (inv. no. “210462”, Neg. no. “A109443c”); and a staff of office with female figure in the Etnografisch Museum, Antwerp (inv. no. “AE.61.62.2”).