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Date: late 19th to early 20th century
Medium:Wood, beads, and metal
Geographic Location: Democratic Republic of the Congo
Dimensions: Overall: 16 7/16 x 11 9/16 x 10 9/16 in. (41.751 x 29.4 x 26.8 cm)
Credit Line: Dallas Museum of Art, The Clark and Frances Stillman Collection of Congo Sculpture, gift of Eugene and Margaret McDermott
Object Number: 1969.S.105
This caryatid stool carved from wood and adorned with beads, comes from the Luba (LOO-ba) peoples of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The stool, known as a kipona, and also called a lupona, is the most important symbol of a Luba king’s royal authority. It serves as the king’s throne and as a receptacle for his spirit after he dies. The stool is a symbol of the king’s relationship with his people and of the supporting role of women in Luba society.
Although the Luba are a patrilineal society, most items of Luba regalia created from the eighteenth to the twentieth century feature females rather than males. The female figure represented on this stool possesses a number of qualities that suggest her high rank and position. The cross-form hairstyle, high forehead, and scarification are qualities suggesting beauty and importance in Luba society.
The kipona, also lupona or royal stool, is the king’s most important symbol of his status and royal authority. It is tangible proof that a king is a descendant of Mbidi Kiluwe, the legendary seventeenth-century ruler who founded the Luba (LOO-ba) kingdom. A kipona is used during important ceremonies, such as when a new ruler is enthroned. When sitting on a kipona, a king’s feet do not touch the ground but rest on his wife’s lap or a leopard pelt.
The stool on which the king was enthroned was rarely put on public view, but kept covered with a white cloth and guarded by a palace official at a site far away from the village. The kipona is also a receptacle for the king’s spirit and memory after he dies.
Russûna and a Wife. Engraving, 1887. Russûna, a Luba chief, sits on a carved wooden stool in the form of a caryatid and rests his feet on his wife's lap.
Although the Luba are a patrilineal society, most items of Luba regalia created from the eighteenth to the twentieth century feature females rather than males. An explanation may lie in the fact that the female image reminds one that women have played important roles in Luba history by wielding power behind-the-scenes as counselors, titleholders, priestesses, spirit mediums, ambassadors, and symbolic kings. Of course, from the male perspective, women also have the mysterious ability to bear children.
Women’s support is both literal and spiritual. According to Verney Lovett Cameron, a British traveler who accompanied Sir Richard Burton to Central Africa in 1882, a woman was placed on her hands and knees upon a ruler’s death and made to support the dead king and his treasury. Another report asserts that women were spirit mediums (mwadi). The mwadi, possessed by the dead king’s spirit, lived a celibate life that was dedicated to perpetuating the king’s memory.
This stool depicts a female with a high forehead, heavy lidded eyes, and a serene facial expression. Posed kneeling, she supports the seat with her head and hands. Her torso and thighs are decorated with symmetrical patterns carved in relief. The back of her head reveals a cross-form hairstyle carved in high relief.
Founded in 1585 by King Kongolo, the Luba kingdom of the present-day southeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo peaked in the seventeenth century when it controlled a federation of kingdoms. Luba art is made for the cult of ancestors, closed societies, and the king’s court. The empire began to collapse in the 1860s as a result of raids, slave traders, and Belgian consolidation. Today the Luba number over four million people.
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.
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.