LACMA has opened a new space for African art with “Shaping Power: Luba Masterworks from the Royal Museum for Central Africa.” Though just 20-some objects, it’s better than any blockbuster you’re likely to see this year. This is the first loan ever for a world-famous mask (above). The serene face represents a male hero-king with an elaborate hair style is that had both feminine and animalistic associations.
African art has been on and off view throughout LACMA’s existence. In 1974 Anna Bing Arnold gave a Benin bronze plaque to jump-start the Sub-Saharan collection. Lee and Rada Bronson donated a number of Congolese objects in the 1990s, and the museum’s 2009 Collectors Committee bought a noted collection of 117 Kuba textiles assembled by Belgian modernist Georges Meurant. Yet the museum has more often missed out in landing great collections of African art. The biggest disappointment came in 2006, when Walt Disney Corp. donated a 525-piece collection that LACMA had sought to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art. Disney had orignally bought the collection to display in its Epcot theme park.
That says something about the complicated history of African art in the West, as does the fact that this show’s fantastic objects normally reside in a museum in Tevuren, Belgium. American museums tend to put Sub-Saharan art in a white cube (as “modern art”) or else in spotlighted darkness (as populist “treasure”). LACMA’s newest gallery is a clean, naturally lighted place for African art. Floor-to-ceiling windows on the building’s north end create an airy effect. The walls are a cool-neutral, and the flooring is the dark wood used elsewhere in the Renzo Piano refresh. Located on “Level 3″ (basically, the second floor) of the Hammer Building, the Sub-Saharan space logically adjoins displays of Egyptian art.
The cases for the Luba objects are rectilinear metal with a rose velvet worthy of the objects’ royal associations. Everything is glazed, and that’s the one drawback. From some angles, reflections interfere with the art inside.
The Kingdom of Luba, in today’s Democratic Republic of the Congo, was one of the centers of artistic innovation. LACMA’s African curator, Mary (Polly) Nooter Roberts, has published on Luba art ever since her 1991 doctorate. The objects in the show date from the nineteenth century, the high point of the tradition. Most were collected by Belgian colonials, sometimes in war. (A concurrent contemporary installation, Aimè Mpane, Shadow of the Shadow, acknowledges that awful history.)
Luba sculture was created by men to legitimize male rulers, yet almost all of the figures depicted are female. When the king died, a female mystic inherited his home and wives. The idea of women as the foundation of kingly power is embodied in the caryatid stools.
The women of Luba sculpture wear grave and mystical expressions. The faces of those holding a Royal Bowl (kiteya, detail at right)—small and easily overlooked—are unforgettable.
(At bottom, a Buffalo Mask with cowry eyes from the Tabwa people).