Lulua female figure, DRC

When a Lulua woman lost a child or had difficulties in childbearing that were beyond the power of a diviner to resolve, she would be initiated into a fertility cult known as bwanga bwa cibola. The cult’s practices called upon ancestor spirits to intercede on behalf of the mother and ensure her success in bringing a child to term. A ritual figure called mbulenga would be carved and placed in the home as a repository and conduit for prayer. These figures are among the most iconic in the Lulua corpus, and the finest examples are renowned for their sculptural power and refined workmanship.

The characteristics of the present figure follow the canonical template for mbulenga: an oversized head with large vertical horn, a serene and confident expression, a long neck, and short, compact, bent legs. A cup is held in the figure’s left hand next to the belly, from which a prominent umbilicus protrudes. Mbulenga are often adorned with extensive relief designs covering the body, which represent scarifications. Some are visible here despite the encrusted layers of ritual material remaining on the neck and torso, including some of the concentric circles that surround the navel, which symbolize life.

"Designs for Living" by Adams (Monni), Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, The Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Harvard University Cambridge, 1982: #74

Late 19th / early 20th century
Height: 8 ¼ in

The Donald Morris Gallery, Detroit, IL, USA, 1978.
Karob Collection, Boston, MA

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