Objects of Knowledge and Power: The Art of the Lega

Pair of Large Masks, Idimu or Muminia Wood with fiber attachment and cowrie shell.

Lega, Africa
YPM catalog no. 268332a, b


The ivory, bone and wood carvings produced by the Lega peoples of the Democratic Republic of the Congo are among the world’s most celebrated examples of African art.

The abstract carvings include human figurines, animal figurines, wooden masks, ivory and elephant bone maskettes, anthropomorphic spoons and ritual pegs.

These two very large masks were carved by the same artist, possibly for use together, and are atypical in the treatment of the mouth, nose and eyes.

At right: Male dancer at the 1971 Bwami initiation ceremony.

Upper left: Ceremonial building.

Lower left: A line of male dancers at a Bwami Society initiation ceremony in 1971.


What makes Lega art especially interesting is that the pieces are intimately related to ritual, social hierarchy and power in Lega society. The art is produced for members of the Bwami Society, a secret initiation society in which members advance to higher grades over the course of their lifetimes. There are separate male and female branches of the Society.

The hat of the solo dancer, with its elephant hair crown, and his leopard-tooth necklace indicate that this man has reached the Kindi rank, the highest rank in the Bwami Society.

During the initiation ceremony, the art objects are kept in this round ceremonial building, to be brought out at the appropriate time. They are guarded by female members of the Bwami Society.

Photographs courtesy of Robert Harms.

Left: Spoon, Kalukili
Elephant bone
Lega, Africa YPM 268073

Center: Spoon, Kalukili
Elephant bone
Lega, Africa YPM 268092

Right: Spoon, Kaluki
Elephant bone
Lega, Africa YPM 268099


Carved pieces have individual meaning: a piece can represent a character in a fable (and by extension, the moral of the fable), embody a proverb or represent an aspect of the human condition. Taken together, the art objects exemplify the moral philosophy of the Bwami Society.

The spoon In the center, above, shows the classic Lega-style head; the tapered handle suggest a snake biting the bowl.

The spoon on the right is in a classical Lega style. The handle is

Left: Figurine, Maginga
Lega, Africa YPM 268126

Center: Figurine, Maginga
Probably elephant bone
Lega, Africa YPM 268159

Right: Figurine, Maginga
Lega, Africa YPM 268237


Lega carvings also represent hierarchy and power. Certain pieces can be owned and carried only by members who hold a certain rank in the Society. Thus, as a person advances in rank over the years, he or she gains the right to own previously forbidden objects. A look at someone’s collection can quickly tell you what rank he or she has attained. The objects are displayed during ceremonies when a new initiate joins the Society, or when a member is initiated into a higher rank.

Above, the figurine on the left is in an abstract Lega style, with raised eyes and a long nasal ridge. There are simple arms at the side, a narrowing torso, and a swelling conical shape forms the lower trunk.

The center figurine shows four classical Lega faces oriented to the cardinal points and two Janus faces.

The figurine on the right is a classical Janus-faced figure of Sabitwebitwe.

Left: Maskette, Lukungu
Elephant bone
Lega, Africa YPM 268259

Right: Maskette, Lukungu
Elephant bone
Lega, Africa YPM 268336


The circle-dot motifs on the forehead and beneath the eyes of the maskette on the left represent scarification. The maskette is pierced for a beard, which is now lost.

This maskette on the right is a typical form, with a short brow, lozenge eyes in deep ocular orbits, a flat facial plane, and incised dots beneath the eyes and on the forehead, with white infill that represents scarification. It is pierced for attaching a cord and beard, both of which are missing.