One of the African collection’s most famous, signature objects has recently returned to view in the first-floor galleries, after well over a year’s worth of travel around the country.
The Lulua mother and child figure (lupingu lua luimpe) was featured in the exhibition Art and Power in the Central African Savanna, which was organized by the Cleveland Museum of Art, and travelled to the Menil Collection, in Houston, and the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, in San Francisco. The mother and child figure featured prominently, among an assortment of figurative sculpture from the cultures of the southern Congolese grasslands, including the Chokwe, Songye and Luba, in addition to the Lulua—art traditions that are all well represented in Brooklyn’s collections.
Lupingu lua luimpe figures such as this were used by a cult among the Lulua, called Bwanga bwa Cibola, which aimed to cure infertility. Women who were having trouble conceiving could be initiated into the cult, after which they would receive a lupingu lua luimpe figure, which was designed to ward off any ill intentions that might be directed her way. With incredibly elaborate, finely carved scarification patterns on the mother’s face, shoulders and back, and an otherworldly grace to her facial features, Brooklyn’s piece remains an unrivaled masterpiece.
While the Lulua figure was making its way around the U.S., its place in the gallery was held by a Salampasu style standing female figure (tulume), from a neighboring cultural region. The face of this carved figure exhibits many of the same distinctive facial features found in Salampasu masking traditions. This figure’s hat, like masks from the region, may have originally held feathers. Whereas masks are used in public performance among the Salampasu, figurative sculptures are either privately owned or used in various religious cults. Tulume figures are quite rare, and since little research has been done among the Salampasu, hypotheses about the role of sculptures in this Central African culture remain highly speculative.
The Lulua piece remains one of the iconic works of Brooklyn’s African holdings. (Indeed, while it has only traveled about once a decade, it has been published over 20 times – likely more.) While we were happy to share the work with new audiences in Cleveland, Houston and San Francisco, we are exceedingly pleased to have it back home.
For more on the Lulua mother and child, and other iconic works in Brooklyn’s African collection, consult our new catalog – African Art: a Century at Brooklyn Museum. William C. Siegmann (ed.), Kevin D. Dumouchelle and Joseph Adande. New York: Prestel, 2009.