Late C19th / early C20th
Wood and cowri shell
16.5 cm high
Private collection, France.
Arts primitifs, Lucas Ratton, Paris, France.
This Lega wood head is a masengo initiative object of the Bwami society, considered as a guide to moral development of the individual that also governs the relations of the social group.
The Bwami is thus supposed to lead to moral excellency, beauty, wisdom and prestige, also concerns the political and social functions for the community. Heads in wood and ivory play a role into the society’s highest grades during this initiation. Indeed, the carved objects embody complex and multiple meanings elaborated through proverbs, skirts and dances. The masengo is consecrated by the Bwami and indicates the social status of the initiates.
Special care is thus paid to the carving, as physical beauty and moral excellency are inseparable for Lega people.
This particular very finely carved head shows a concave head-shaped face with a delicate frowned mouth. The eyebrows join in heart-shape and extend on the thin nose bridge. On each side appear two cowry-shell eyes. The two detailed ears are surmounted by a headdress engraved linearly. That may represent the cap marking the rank of the initiate. indeed, the different grades own different hair dresses, cowry shells indicating that the initiate rose through the highest ranks.
The smooth polished red-brown nuanced patina testifies of the ritual use of this very finely sculpted head and allude to the refine and perfect nature of the Bwami initiate.