Among the Lega [LAY-guh] people, art is made in the service of the Bwami [BWAH-mee] initiation society. The objects made for Bwami connect with certain levels of initiation and with important knowledge. The Lega people call this Four-faced half figure Sakimatwematwe [shah-kyee-mah-TWAY-mah-TWAY], which means Many-Heads.
This sculpture is connected with a proverb: "Sakimatwematwe has seen an elephant on the other side of the large river." In other words, Sakimatwematwe sees in all directions and notices things that others do not. This proverb also refers to the fairness, based on wisdom and knowledge that marks the high-ranking Bwami initiate.
This Four-faced half-figure known as Sakimatwematwe [shah-kyee-mah-TWAY-mah-TWAY], or "many heads," is related to the proverb "Sakimatwematwe has seen an elephant on the other side of the large river." The sculpture teaches Bwami [BWAH-mee] members to be open-minded, wise, and fair. This meaning applies to any multi-headed Lega figure.
The form of the sculpture does not stop at the base of the neck of the multi-faced figure. The middle cylinder and the four projecting shapes below it, which represent legs bending outward at an angle, symbolize a stool. Among the Lega [LAY-guh], only high-ranking individuals possess stools in the Bwami society.
The elimination of arms indicates the capacity of the figure to look simultaneously into the four cardinal directions while anchored to a single powerful source of energy.
A proverb, also known as an aphorism, is a brief saying embodying a general truth, principle, or belief. Lega scholar Daniel Biebuyck writes that Lega aphorisms often refer to the form of the object.
The aphorism refers to the cylindrical base of the seat and base. The seat and base are referred to here as two opposing heads, a theme frequently represented on anthropomorphic figurines. Many-Heads is a symbol of the wisdom, perspicacity, and equitableness of the kindi (one of the highest grades in Bwami). Everybody can achieve status and self expression through Bwami: "Every chair has an open space; every mulega [member of the Lega] is [a potential] wabume [one who has virility and manhood, poise and character, and status; one who is fully human]." (Biebuyck 1973, 186)
Explanations of such figures demonstrate the complex teachings of the Bwami society and the layered meanings of the sculptures.
Instead of a central political system, leadership and governance are given to Bwami, a voluntary age-ranking association open to Lega men and women. The Bwami teach values of moderation, nonviolence, kinship, respect, constraint, and morals as well as physical beauty through objects like the Four-faced half-figure. All Lega art is used within the context of the Bwami society.
Although not all members reach the highest level of the Bwami, the few that do become the moral and philosophical elite and are entitled to possess symbols appropriate to their status. These objects, which are accumulated over time, include carved wood or ivory sculptures that illustrate proverbs about moral perfection.
The Lega inhabit the east-central area of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Lega, who now number around four hundred thousand, immigrated to this area from Uganda in the seventeenth century. Instead of a centralized government, the Lega have the Bwami, an age-ranking association in which leadership is given. Lega artists work ivory, wood, and bone to create masks and figurines that symbolize moral principles.
1. Look closely at the features of the sculpture as you sketch it. What do you notice about the sculpture?
2. This sculpture teaches members of the Bwami society in the Lega culture to be wise, fair, and open-minded. What do you see in this sculpture that could represent these ideas? The Bwami see models for behavior in artworks they create and they also follow specific rules for behavior as they are initiated into different levels of the Bwami society. How do you learn about proper behavior? What examples of behavior and important personal qualities do you look to and follow in your daily life?
1. This sculpture, Four-faced half figure, is related to a specific proverb: "Sakimatwematwe has seen an elephant on the other side of the large river." Proverbs are sayings, which may often teach us a lesson and are full of wisdom. We may sometimes hear our friends or family members say the following:
· A stitch in time saves nine
· Don’t judge a book by its cover
· All that glitters is not gold
· The early bird gets the worm
Discuss these and other proverbs with the class. What are the lessons to learn and the wisdom imparted through these proverbs? Choose one that you like and translate that proverb into a drawing. Exchange your drawing with another classmate and see if they can guess the proverb that you illustrated. Share thoughts about how you chose to illustrate the proverb.
2. Lega artworks often represent valuable principles or beliefs. Several beliefs connected to this sculpture could be wisdom, fairness, and good judgment. Choose one of these principles or beliefs and create an original work that embodies the belief. For instance, what would a sculpture that represented fairness look like? After creating your works, share them with the rest of the class and discuss how the beliefs may have been interpreted and represented differently in each class member’s creation.
Black Art, Ancestral Legacy: The African Impulse in African-American Art. Dallas, Texas: Dallas Museum of Art; New York: Distributed by H.N. Abrams, 1989. Page 171.
Dallas Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection. Dallas, 1997. Page 163.
Biebuyck, Daniel P. Lega Culture: Art, Initiation, and Moral Philosophy Among a Central African People. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1973. pages 186-187
Biebuyck, Daniel P. Lega: Ethics and Beauty in the Heart of Africa. Brussels, Belgium: KBC Banking & Insurance ; Gent, Belgium : Snoeck-Ducaju & Zoon, 2002.
Cameron, Elisabeth L. Art of the Lega. University of Washington Press, 2002.
Lunsford, John. “The Gustave and Franyo Schindler Collection of African Sculpture,” Dallas Museum of Art: 100 Years. Dallas, 2003. Brochure #35.
Verswijver, Gustaaf. De Palmenaer, Els. Masterpieces from Central Africa – The Tervuren Museum. Prestel, 1996.
Walker, Roslyn A. The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009. Catalog no. 10, pages 64-65.
Books for Students:
Finley, Carol. The Art of African Masks: Exploring Cultural Traditions. Lerner Publishing Group, 1998.
Heale, Jay. Lin, Yong J. Democratic Republic of the Congo (Cultures of the World). Benchmark Books, 2009.
This resource discusses the Lega peoples and culture.
Learn facts about Africa’s geography and ethnic groups on this Web site from the California Academy of Sciences.
View works of art up close and learn more about African life by visiting this Web site from the Indianapolis Museum of Art.
This timeline gives a history of Africa through its art.
Find out more about the diversity of African art by visiting the National Museum of African Art’s Web site.
This museum has several pieces of Lega art and a description of the Lega culture.
Many works of art seen in museums have a religious or ceremonial significance that may not be readily apparent or easily understood. Because many of the beliefs, values, and traditions associated with these objects are complex or unfamiliar, teaching about these objects can be challenging. In a diverse and global world, it is important to maintain a high level of cultural sensitivity in the classroom and to promote cultural literacy. Presented here are several guidelines for teaching about the beliefs, values, and traditions related to these works of art in a sensitive and respectful manner.
- Consider the Museum Setting
Remember that these objects were not originally intended to be displayed in museums and many served utilitarian as well as aesthetic functions. Some objects were never meant to be preserved and others were only supposed to be seen by a small, elite group within the source culture. These issues make it all the more important for educators to provide relevant contextual information surrounding these objects. Older students can consider the ethical implications of the placement of these objects in museums, from the colonial expansions that encouraged their acquisition to the educational benefits of publicly accessible art.
- Provide Context and Narrative
When discussing works that carry a religious or ceremonial significance, it is important to consider the original context in which the object would have been used. Where appropriate, emphasize that many of the ceremonies and religions studied are living traditions that are still practiced today. Additionally, providing a narrative through contextual storytelling engages students in learning about a culture or religion different from their own in a nonthreatening way.
Equally important to context is geography. Emphasize the diversity of the continents and encourage students to remember that Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas are made up of many countries and cultures. A great starting point is to locate where students live on a world map and then locate the country or region from which the artwork comes.
- Use Inclusive Language
Use language that is inclusive, and avoid indicating your own cultural or religious biases. By remaining neutral, all backgrounds can be respected and no one treated like an outsider. Avoid setting up a dichotomy of “us” and “them” when discussing these cultures and arbitrary categories such as “western” and “non-western.” Instead, be specific, and categorize the objects by country or religion. Specificity steers students away from the trap of oversimplifying diverse continents such as Asia or Africa into homogenous regions that serve as the “other” of the “western” world.
- Carefully Select Vocabulary
When discussing works of art with cultural and religious significance, avoid terms that carry a derogatory tone or that have typically been used to disparagingly describe works of art from other cultures. Avoiding loaded terms will discourage a value hierarchy between cultures and encourage both unbiased accuracy and sensitivity. Examples include: idol, myth, tribe, artifact, fetish, primitive, non-western, etc. This list is in no way exhaustive or without exception, and it is important to select words carefully when referring to various cultures or religions.
Insensitive vocabulary is sometimes compounded by the fact that there may not be English equivalents for the names of religions, belief systems, or peoples from other cultures (i.e. many of the belief systems practiced by various peoples throughout Africa).
- Avoid Decontextualizing Activities
Remember that religious and ceremonial objects have a very specific purpose and their own cultural context. Avoid the inclination to design open-ended, “make your own” exercises where the objects are directly appropriated and removed from their context. (i.e. make your own Hindu god or African spirit) Keep in mind how certain activities could be viewed as disrespectful or even blasphemous by peoples from the culture being studied.
- Find Common Connections
Humans throughout time and all over the world share a fundamental unity of experiences that reflect common concerns, instincts, and desires. We all seek to understand the world and our place within it. Universal themes and commonalities may be found among diverse peoples. Invite students to search for meaningful connections between the culture studied and his/her own. While honoring a common human experience, also encourage students to embrace particular nuances and maintain the integrity of differences of each culture or religion. Understanding both similarities and differences between cultures allows students to be more compassionate, culturally sensitive, and literate.
- Consider the Study of Cultures
In the last century, scholarship regarding Asian and African cultures and their associated religions and practices has expanded immensely. Information that was once scarce or obscure is now more accessible than ever and can provide greater understandings about the art and culture of these peoples. European and American art making and record keeping mostly emphasize the individual artist or artistic movement. This may differ from standards in African and Asian cultures. Consider the role art plays in various cultures, why makers may or may not be identified, how record keeping varies, and why some cultures emphasize certain aspects of objects and their history over others.
Breuilly, Elizabeth, and Joanne O’Brien, Martin Palmer, Martin E. Marty. Religions of the World: The Illustrated Guide to Origins, Beliefs, Traditions, and Festivals. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2005.
Eck, Diana L. On Common Ground: World Religions in America. Columbia University Press, 2006.
Mbiti, John. African Religion and Philosophy (African Writers), 2nd sub edition. Hinemann, 1992.
Nash, Robert. Teaching Adolescents Religious Literacy in a Post-9/11 World. Information Age Publishing, 2009.
Prothero, Stephen. God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter. Harper One, 2010.
Prothero, Stephen. Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know-- and Doesn’t. San Francisco: Harper, 2007.
Ray, Benjamin. African Religions: Symbol, Ritual, and Community, 2nd edition. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.:Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2000.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. Vintage Books, 1979.
“A Teacher’s Guide to Religion in the Public Schools”