LUBA Mboko
Information and style comparison
I originally created this page to discuss a piece that was being offered to me. I have removed the image of that piece and have kept some of the
example images on the page and I have just added some information on the uses of these pieces.
Female Bowl Bearer (Mboko)
Luba, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Wood, beads; H. 36.8 cm (14 1/2 in.)
19th century
American Museum of Natural History, New York
Sotheby's - New York
Arts of Africa, Oceania & The Americas
Auction Date : May 17, 2002


seated, with attenuated legs held out to the front, holding a hollowed bowl on her lap,
with an attenuated torso, beneath the spherical head with delicate features, the cross
hatched backswept coiffure on a domed brow with chevron-decorated extension to the
back; encrusted varied red-brown patina overall.

Estimate:$ 25,000 - $ 35,000  
Price Realized:$ 21,510    

Pace Primitive and Ancient Art, New York Cf. Neyt (1993:26 and 37) and Roberts and
Roberts (1996:cat.22) for related sculptures. Neyt (ibid.) emphasizes the uniqueness of
the carving style in the work of the artist who carved this figure, 'Master of the Three
Rivers" who produced only a few figures and whose work shows an "affiliation with the
ateliers at Kabongo and Mwanze.
Sotheby's - New York
African, Oceanic and Pre-Columbian Art
Auction Date : Nov 11, 2004


seated on foreshortened legs, the salient torso with conical breasts and shelf-like shoulders pitched
forward and leading to slender arms with hands resting on a spherical, hollowed bowl, the neck
encircled by glass beads beneath the oval head with pursed mouth and coffee-bean eyes and wearing
a multi-tiered coiffure; the whole decorated with incised and notched scarifications in bold chevron and
diamond motifs; varied blackened patina.

height 19 1/4 in. 49cm

Estimate:$ 30,000 - $ 50,000  
Price Realized:$ 0    


Owned by chiefs and diviners, bowl figures were used in ceremonies to honor and remember the first
mythical diviner. 'Rulers keep them at their doors filled with a sacred white chalk associated with purity,
renewal and the spirit world. Usually, however, these figures are the prerogative of royal diviners...who
use them as oracles, and as receptacles for their possessing spirit's wife' (Roberts and Roberts 1996:

The distinct iconographic qualities of the Rosenberg figure identifies her as part of the Mwanza
sub-style of the Luba Shankadi, as outlined by de Maret, Dery and Murdoch (1973: 11). According to
Neyt, in his discussion of a very closely related bowl, formerly in the Rubinstein collection, 'this piece
shows a very specific type of coiffure with five lateral buns distributed in a fan-like manner on the head;
however the fourth bun becomes almost semi-circular, overlapping the lowest one, a formal trait which
differentiates this piece from the Kabongo style. [This figure] comes from the Mwanza region, in the
southwestern part of the Upemba depression, on the left bank of the Upper [Congo] River. Other
statues of this style have been collected in 1914, 1922 and 1929 by Macar, Rusmont, Dewit and
Labrique: For related figures see one in the Iowa University Museum (Roy 1979: 179, figure 171);
another in the National Museum of African Art, Washington, D.C.; a third in University of Witwatersrand,
South Africa' (Sotheby's, New York, 1990, lot 431). For additional related figures see Fagg (1971: II-2)
for one formerly in the Tara Collection; Roberts (ibid: 61); and Casa Coray (1968: no. 89) for one from
the Coray collection. For further discussion of the Mwanza sub-style see Roberts (1998).
Sotheby's - New York
Arts of Africa, Oceania & The Americas
Auction Date : May 17, 2002


mboko, the kneeling figure with flat wedge-shaped feet to the back, beneath an
elongated torso with raised cicatrices, the shelf-like shoulders with attenuated arms
holding a hollowed vessel, the head with four faces, each with mouth and eyes of similar
form, the front and back face with scarification at the forehead, and wearing a shared
conical coiffure with linear striations; varied medium brown patina.

Estimate:$ 20,000 - $ 30,000  
Price Realized:$ 17,925    

Collected by Maurice Matton, a Belgian government official in 1927 Mr. and Mrs. J.W.
Gillon, London The Tara Trust, London Cecilia and Irwin Smiley Collection, New York
Sotheby's - New York
African and Oceanic Art
Auction Date : Nov 16, 2001

Lot 145 :  A Luba female figure with bowl

A Luba female figure with bowl the figure seated with her legs stretched out to the front,
and holding a hollowed bowl with conical lid on her lap, the slender body with broad
shoulders and geometric raised scarification markings, the head with raised facial
features and a cascading coiffure decorated with rows of chevron motif; fine and varied
deep brown patina. height 16in. (40.6cm.) Cf. Roberts and Roberts (1996:71) and Neyt
(1993:26-27) for closely related examples of this style. The extremely specific
iconography of this figure places it in what Neyt calls the 'Three Rivers' style area. 'Bowl
figures are owned by both chiefs and diviners to honor and remember the critical role
played by the first mythical diviner, Mijibu wa Kalenga, in the founding of kingship...
usually...these figures are the prerogative of royal diviners called 'Bilumbu' who used
them as oracles. (Roberts and Roberts 1996: 70)

Estimate:$ 8,000 - $ 10,000  
Price Realized:
$ 0  
Information below on Luba divination with Mboko figures and gords/baskets is from the book:

Memory: Luba Art and the Making of History

A fantastic reference book on the Luba
While Bilumbu diviners communicate with their possessing spirits by incantations, songs, and percussion, the spirits
respond through visual codes, including the kinetic arrangement of items in a gourd or basket. For different purposes and
occasions, Bwana Vidye among Luba, like some diviners among their Songye, Aruund (Lunda), Chokwe, Lovale, and
Ovimbundu neighbors, use baskets and a variety of gourds that contain sundry natural and artificial objects (fig. 185).
During consultation, a diviner shakes such a gourd and interprets the resulting configurations of items. Each object is
mnemonically multireferential, or, as Turner would say, "polyvalent" (1970)—able to "hook up" conceptually to other
objects, like atoms in molecules of meaning, or complex polymers of narrated memory. The juxtapositions of a basket's
objects remind the diviners of certain general cultural rubrics and relationships through which they can classify the client's
specific case. A metaphoric bridging occurs between general precepts and past precedents, on the one hand, and
present-day woes on the other. In this way, sense and order can be perceived and created from the indecipherable
simultaneity of lived experience (see V. Turner 1975:239). The contents of the gourd are a microcosm of memory,
intention, and hope, then, and the product of the objects' reconfiguration is a pregnant hypothesis (Roberts 1995a:95).
The items in the gourd are like the ideograms or beads of a lukasa or a staff. Here, though, the "bits" of meaning and
experience are broken loose from the interpretive restraint of narrative plot. Though lukasas and staffs provide flexible
systems of signification, they nonetheless present a static, fixed mode of narrative representation that can be experienced
through their consolidated physical forms. The kinetic mnemonic devices used by Luba diviners, on the other hand,
constitute a system whose parts are meaningfully aligned only through "random" casting, movement, and motion. Such a
memory system allows for greater latitude of interpretation than a lukasa or other "sculpted narrative," a flexibility obviously
necessary to cope with the vicissitudes of everyday life. And from an insider's viewpoint, of course, there is nothing
random about the process or its results, for the objects' movements and juxtapositions are directed by spirits to reveal
otherwise hidden concepts, relationships, and purposes. The prototypes for the objects and processes of this kind of
divination are said to have been introduced by Mijibu wa Kalenga. A Bwana Vidye must be in trance to interpret a gourd's
constellations of symbols; it is trance that allows the diviner to transcend this world so as to gain insight from the other.
Most consultations are held inside diviners' homes. Once a Bwana Vidye has donned his or her apparel and set up the
consultation area, clients are asked to enter the house, but only after taking off their shim, shoes, watches, hats, and
belts. In other words, as many worldly signs are removed as is possible and polite. The client takes his or her place on a
mat on the floor, while the diviner sits on a stool or bed, with the Kapamba (wife) and Kitobo (guide) to either side. The
entire consultation is accompanied by songs for twins, sung by the diviner, his wife or wives, and his children, all of whom
are usually present.

The equipment for divination—calabashes, figures, horns, small baskets—is kept in a covered basket called a "kitumpo"
figs. 186-187) or, nowadays, in a metal trunk. Ordinarily, only the diviner may look into the basket or trunk to view the
paraphernalia, and during consultations the diviner removes one object at a time for use, without ever exposing all of the
trunk's contents. Among the most important objects in a Bilumbu kit is a sacred gourd containing natural and manufactured
objects (
fig. 188). This gourd, called "mboko" in the villages of Kinkondja and Malemba and "kileo" in the Kabongo Zone,
is considered a source of well-being, wealth, good health, and truth (see Van Avermaet and Mbuya 1954:76-77).

An mboko is filled with an array of objects, including tiny iron replicas of tools; composite magical bundles contained in
antelope horns, cowrie shells, and the carapaces of dried beetles; one or more human teeth; caddis-fly cases; fruits,
seeds, and twigs; bird beaks and claws; chalk; and a dozen or more miniature carved wooden human figures. This is the
raw material with which the diviner diagnoses a problem. Facing the seated client, the Bwana Vidye shakes the mboko,
then opens the lid to peer inside. Whichever objects or figures are standing or have come to the surface of the jumble of
chalk-covered pieces are taken as revelatory signs. From these, the diviner begins to form "organizing images" and a
hypothesis concerning the client's difficulty. The process is repeated again and again until a relatively clear understanding
of the problem has been formulated. As one diviner explained the process, "the Bwana Vidye looks at the wooden figures,
which give him information that he surrenders to the client. Understanding the configuration of figures in the gourd is
possible only when the spirit has taken possession of the diviner. At that moment he can interpret the different aspects of
these statues. Ordinary people, or Bilumbu not in possession, cannot determine their meaning or function."

The symbols in the gourd are a multireferential, "open-ended analogical system" (Peek 1991:12), and only the diviner is
capable of decoding and disclosing the secret meanings of their juxtapositions. The individual symbols are mnemonic, as
are their larger configurations. But unlike lukasas, which uphold state and institutional ideology, and staffs, which validate
personal claims to power, the mboko's messages are based on a set of moral premises intended to ensure health, justice,
and social harmony. Turner, who has studied similar divination techniques among Zambian Ndembu to the southwest,
suggests that "diviners are extraordinarily shrewd and practical. . . . The way they interpret their divinatory symbols reveals
deep insight both into the structure of their own society and into human nature. . . . The symbols are mnemonics,
shorthands, cyphers; . . . they serve as reminders to the diviner of certain general rubrics of culture within which he can
classify the specific instance of behavior" (V. Turner 1975:209 and 239).

The items in an mboko include both sculpted human figures, in postures such as coitus, and a wide variety of natural
objects (
fig. 189). Like the items in Ndembu divination baskets, these objects represent many things and each has many

Some represent structural features in human life, aspects of the cultural landscape, principles of social organization and
social groups and categories, and dominant customs regulating economic, sexual and social life. Others represent forces
or dynamic entities, such as motives, wishes, desires, and feelings. Not infrequently the same symbol expresses both an
established custom and a set of stereotyped conflicts and forms of competition that have developed around it. It is roughly
true that the human figurines represent universal psychological types while many of the other objects refer specifically to
Ndembu structure and culture (ibid.:214).

The diviner's skill is determined, however, by "the way in which he adapts his general exegesis of the objects to the given
circumstances" (ibid.:217).
Contemporary Luba diviners explain that the bowl figure (when female) represents the wife of the diviner's possessing spirit. Bowl
figures also refer to the first Luba diviner, Mijibu wa Kalenga, who facilitated Kalala Ilunga's accession to the throne.
Photos: Mary Nooter Roberts, 1988-89
Some contemporary chiefs own clay bowl figures with multiple human forms.
Photo: Mary Nooter Roberts, 1988
Rand African Art
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