The Ghost of the Collection

Responses to a Luba-Hemba Ceremonial Staff
We are now going back a few years. It was the winter of 1993 and a student from the Norwich School of Art came to see me as the expert in African art in the Sainsbury Centre.

It was about the Luba-Hemba ceremonial staff, UEA 266, currently displayed in the Living Area of the collection. The problem was at the same time very simple and frightfully difficult to handle. My visitor told me that, on occasion of her several visits to the Centre, she had always felt uncomfortable when passing by - let alone looking at - the staff: 'Â…you know, the one all hung with strings of beads and studded with brass nailsÂ…'. She insisted that the object had 'power', that she felt there were 'negative vibes' emanating from it. Other friends and colleagues of hers also felt the same, and one in particular was so affected by the staff's 'vibes' that she had decided never to come again to the Sainsbury Centre.

I listened and became increasingly worried, for I knew what was next. My visitor stared at me intensely and then said: ' I have come to ask you whether you believe it is true that such objects have power'.

About such staffs only little is known. This particular one has been dated to the late 19th century, from a time when the once powerful Luba empire had crumbled and local chiefs were fast losing their former power. However, W.F.P. Burton, who published the first, fieldwork-based systematic work on Luba religion in 1961, provides a few details which are worth quoting in full. Chiefly staffs were carried by chiefs or their spokesmen and publicly displayed to enforce and emphasize a leader's decree. In certain cases, the presence of the staff stood for the presence of the chief - to the extent that the two were mutually exclusive. All this occurred in a context of reverence and respect for the object - I quote from Burton's words:

'[such objects] Â…are given such respect that very few are permitted to see them, or even to know that they exist. They have no charms attached, yet they are so respected, as an emblem of the chieftainship, that no money whatever could buy them. Instead, the chief himself (Â…) would not dare to part with them on his own responsibility'.

Burton then goes on telling us that the staves were carried into battle and protected from falling into enemy hands. Insulting them was like insulting the entire community, and 'enemies of the staff' were treated like enemies of the state (Burton 1961: 31).

François Neyt, the foremost authority on Luba art, firmly attributes the Sainsbury Collection staff to the Kabongo-Kisula Atelier, that is to say well inside Luba country proper (Neyt 1994: 135 and Map p. 232). This geographical attribution, though based upon stylistical analysis, can help us to understand the significance of the object in its original context.

It is generally accepted that the present day system of patrilineal descent practised by the majority of ethnic groups which form the so-called 'Luba cluster' is the result of long and complex historical dynamics. In a nutshell, there is evidence to suggest that, when the Luba empire was established in 1625 and for a long time thereafter, the Luba practiced matrilineal descent, and many still do. Accordingly, they inherited not from their Father, but from their Mother's Brother. In this context, a central figure of the Luba political system was the Queen Mother, called the Lukokesha. Of her, George Murdock writes - I quote: 'Always the daughter of a former king, she remained unmarried, possessed independent tributary territories for her support, maintained her own court, and shared supreme authority with the monarch. When a king died, the Queen-Mother and the Kannapumba [the four high ranking King-Makers, CP] constituted an electoral college to choose his successor from among his own sons or those of former rulers' - end quote (Murdock 1959:286).

Discussion of the puzzle as to how a seemingly patrilineal rule of royal succession eventually squared up with the matrilineal practices mentioned above, I will mercifully spare you. What must be of interest to us, instead, is the evidence that women occupied a crucial, even pivotal position within the Luba polity.

In a recent survey of Eastern Congolese art history, Robert Poynor provides crucial insights into the significance and implications of the iconography of feminine forms to be found on a variety of Luba objects, including chiefly staffs.

The characteristic posture of a woman with her hands on her breasts has several meanings throughout the African continent. While in Northern Ghana a woman would hold her breasts while pleading a case with a ruler and wished to give her case a special, almost oath-like strength, amongst the Luba the gesture refers to certain women - I quote - 'who guard the secrets of royalty within their breasts' - end quote. The secrets were guarded by the Mbudye secret society, to which all royals were initiated (Poynor 2001: 415). Female figures on staffs and other paraphernalia may represent specific characters in Luba history, but also they may portray wives and sisters of a given ruler - the very same who were the custodians of the object and, in the case of sisters and matrilineal descent, also the mothers of a ruler's successor. Finally, the Luba believe that, after death, the spirit of a king becomes reincarnated within the body of a woman, who becomes its medium and gives it a voice. The female figures on chiefly staffs may therefore be a reference to the particular way the 'substance' of royalty is passed on through the generations.

In the case of our staff, I think that the identification of the scarification patterns on the figure's torso, or maybe the 'heraldic' significance of the beads may help in further specifying the significance of the object. But - alas - I also think that this task is rendered impossible by the troubled history of the largest country in Africa and the corresponding loss of historical memory. We will probably never know more about the history and original meaning of this object.

But despair not. Anthropologists are masters at making virtues out of necessities, and I will hereby demonstrate that ignorance is indeed a blessing, especially when 'power objects' of the type in question are concerned, for the very awareness of ignorance opens up new and interesting avenues of thought.

It happened a couple of years after the incident I described above and some six thousand miles Southeast of the A11, in Northern Ghana. I was walking along a bush path with my friend Kanitty on the way to a funeral in the village of Dabori. As we chatted away, we came across a tagdunna vug bundle hanging from the branch of a tree right across our path. Kanitty approached the object cautiously, and slowly walked around it, surveying the bundle intently.

Tagdunna vug may be translated as 'black medicine magic'. Bundles of roots, leaves, doctored beads, bones and whatnot are assembled together, bound with a variety of substances according to the appropriate formula and then activated with the recitation of incantations and a final dipping in a sticky mixture of yolk and soot which provides the signature marking the object's nature. Tagdunna vuga are legion and ubiquitous in Northern Ghana: every conceivable situation of need has its own, and anybody who is in need can find one that fixes the problem.

Kanitty, a powerful, respected hunter known all over the district, was certainly not short of knowledge of tagdunna and their phenomenology. Yet, he ended his inspection of this particular variety in despair. 'Kanitty, what is it?' - I asked, temptatively. 'I do not know' - he replied pensively - 'and so we should go back because to walk on may be very dangerous'.

In a forthcoming critique of the current understanding that anthropology has of power objects - once upon a time known as 'fetishes' - I suggest that the amount of power that we attribute to objects stands in inverse proportion to the amount of information that they 'give out', as it were, by means of their explicit, manifest meaning (Poppi, in press). In recent years, anthropologists have conducted a cogent critique of 'Western' understanding of African 'fetishes' by pointing out that such objects, far from being the irrational and incredulous inventions of 'primitive minds' are - in fact - carefully thought out assemblages obeying all the rules of semiosis - of the fully rational process, that is, by which meanings are constructed and communicated within a given social group.

Thus, for instance, a 'fetish' meant to catch thieves will be assembled around an eagle's claw as a graphic metaphor for siezing; a 'fetish' meant to kill murderers will be carved in the shape of a hunting dog - and so on and so forth. Though commendable in its anthropological correctness, the problem with this theory is that it fails to consider a number of important variables in the equation.

In the first place, most 'power objects' are representationally opaque. In other words, as in the 'black medicine bundles' described above, the 'iconography' of the object is not at all referential - the form of the object, in other words, 'means' absolutely nothing and intentionally so. Secondly, even when there is indeed a relationship of a metaphorical or metonymical kind between a component of the object and its function, the give-away, clue-component is hidden. Finally, the actors of the social process who in practice use and 'believe' in the object more often than not know nothing of its make-up and 'meanings'. They simply 'believe that it works', and it works all the more the less those who use it know about its technology.

In general and paradoxically, the less we are persuaded that we can know about certain things which are of crucial importance to us, the less we can represent them in speech or images, the more we tend to believe in their power and efficacy.

But this order of problems applies more widely to all mimetic art, to the point of haunting the development of the artistic traditions of the so-called West.

As Plato once noticed in his criticism of the images of the gods, the moment the gods began to be represented in the human form, people started to stop 'believing' in them. The logical and cultural argument went something like this: either the gods are like human beings and therefore they are not gods, or the human beings are like gods, and therefore there is no need for the supernatural. This is one of the reasons why most monotheistic religions - and indeed also most of those of a 'polytheistic' type - are so reluctant to allow the representation of the Supreme Being and prefer to avoid mimetic representations altogether (Goody 1997). If you think about it for just a moment - some of the key 'power objects' of the major world religions have - strictly speaking - no referential 'meaning'. On the contrary, they appear to have been deliberately chosen because of their implicit negation of the process of signification itself.

Thus, as Josephus reports in his De Bello Judaico, at the heart of the ancient Jewish Temple was a Sancta Sanctorum that was utterly empty; at the core of the haj there is a polished black stone and the Christian host is a white circle - well before Malevich and all that jazz began the critique of the process of signification qua mimesis.

In other words: the objects which are most pregnant with 'sacred meaning' are also those whose representational power is minimized and even - often - intentionally defaced and denied. Our sense of awe and respect is all the more heightened the more we are confronted with what - paraphrasing the vocabulary of cognitive anthropology - are representationally most counter-intuitive statements: a white circle, a polished stone, an empty room, a God with no name.

And so back to UEA 266 - its enigmatic smile, the dangling bits and pieces, the eyes ineffably seeing and not seeing - looking beyond and not looking, knowing and not knowing, assuming. Its skin, seemingly oozing a never-drying oily liquid, hints at certain Medieval relics of Saints that kept exuding miraculous fluids. Anything is possible, for little we know about its intentions, circumstances and aspirations. Or do we? It is still Burton who tells us the last we will probably ever know about it:

'For the chief and his counsellors to give anyone such an object from the regalia, or even a facsimile of it, is a mark of the greatest favour possible. This is not a mere gift from an individual, but a token of respect from the entire chieftainship'

(Burton 1961: 31).

Whose mark of respect are we looking at? Whose mark of respect are we looked at by?

You may be left with a burning, final question, and I wish to answer it, though - I warn you - it will be a rather disappointing answer. 'What did you actually answer the student?' you will ask. 'Is the Luba ceremonial staff, UEA 266, loaded with mystical power?'.

I answered that I did not know, and that it was highly possible that, therefore, the Collection is haunted.

Cesare Poppi | May 2003