Divination Object – D.R. Congo

Luba diviners, practitioners of the Bilumbu tradition, communicate with spirits in order to diagnose and address issues of import to individuals or the community. To accomplish this, they are possessed by a spirit through incantations and songs, and reveal messages from the non-physical world through the kinetic arrangement of a host of tiny objects within a gourd or basket. The materials within the container encompass a wide array of diverse natural objects and figural miniatures, each of which hold manifold meanings and references. Through repeated rounds of mixing and interpretation, coded communications are gradually revealed to the diviner. Beyond gourds and the divining objects they hold, the ritual tools of Bilumbu include regalia, figures, baskets, and more, much of which is stored together in a large, covered basket or box.

The remarkable object presented here is one such item in the diviner’s toolbox. A basket-shaped bundle encloses a small figure, which shows a serene expression and features smoothed to an almost ghostly softness. Rich with highly textured surfaces, the basket is crafted largely of hide and fiber, with a covering layer of clay and the addition of metal horns and grouped wooden rods.  An encrusted duiker horn is attached to the front of the base.

This piece was formerly owned by Arnold Crane, an American photographer of global renown. From the 1950s through the 1990s, Crane enjoyed unparalleled access to the most famous photographers of the past century, and captured images of giants such as Man Ray, Walker Evans, Ansel Adams, Bill Brandt, Brassai, Edward Steichen, and many others in the very intimate settings of their homes, streets and studios. His work has been shown in numerous international exhibitions and is found in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of New York, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and The Art Institute of Chicago.


Late 19th or early 20th century
Wood, skin, horn, metal, clay, fiber, hide
9” h 10 ½” w
Provenance: Arnold Crane, Chicago, probably acquired from a Parisian gallery
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