There is a saying among the Lega of Central Africa: "He who sees the large lusembe-cowrie bare [i.e., for the first time], indeed! He finds it useless."
The proverb implies that the true meaning of Lega artwork is lost on the uninitiated, which is a good thing to keep in mind while moving through the UCLA Fowler Museum's fascinating but ultimately mystifying "Art of the Lega: Meaning and Metaphor in Central Africa."
Whatever your background, it's certainly easy enough to appreciate the artistic value of the works, which include human and animal figures, masks, pendants, spoons, hats, necklaces and baskets. They're all exquisite objects, distinguished by expressive workmanship, an inspired sense of form and a remarkable diversity of styles. The "discovery" of such work by European artists a century ago had such a profound effect that its formal qualities were woven into the very fabric of Modernism and now seem oddly familiar. It's nearly impossible to approach a Lega mask, for example, without thinking of Picasso.
As the exhibition makes clear, however, these are far more than aesthetic objects: They're "heavy things" that are removed from the daily activity of the mundane world, invested with a concentrated form of power and used as sacred tools in the initiation of Lega individuals into the Bwami Society, a cross-clan, cross-territory association. This group "safeguards the moral and social code necessary for the Lega people to live together in harmony," in the words of Africanist Elisabeth L. Cameron, whose clear, scholarly account of the Lega makes the show's companion volume (also titled "Art of the Lega") an essential counterpart to the exhibition.
Some objects, such as hats and belts, are meant for public display to signify Bwami membership, while others, such as natural objects, figures and masks, are only revealed to members during initiations, where they are used in combination with music, drama, dance and proverbs to produce layered metaphors of varying complexity meant to impart lessons for living.
All objects and sayings have multiple meanings that fluctuate depending on the context. For example, a teacher might pair a black ant with the saying, "The one who forgets the bonds of kinsmen, that one should watch how the black ants march," to encourage cooperation and organization within the community. However, paired with the saying, "The young girl sometimes resembles the black ant: She obstinately takes a road where she perishes," the black ant warns against blind obedience and obliviousness to danger.
As Cameron explains: "While an American or European might organize such information around a topic--sayings about family, for example--the Lega organize and teach ideas around an object, letting all positive and negative metaphors radiate from it."
Because Bwami is composed of multiple levels through which members gradually ascend--five for men, three for women--initiation is a lifelong process. To gain entrance into each level, the initiate must acquire the sponsorship of a current member of that level, as well as gather a certain quantity of material goods. Each initiation lasts several days and includes seven or eight performances, during which a teacher leads the initiate through lessons.
In the lower levels, the teacher relies primarily on sayings and common, natural objects, such as mussel shells, animal skulls and bird beaks, burnished examples of which are included in the exhibition. More powerful objects--the carved figures and masks--are reserved for the highest levels, where sayings and metaphors are invoked less frequently. In the last performance of the final initiation, all metaphors are stripped away, and the initiate is left to contemplate a carefully assembled series of objects directly.
The codified portrait of Bwami that "Art of the Lega" presents is, by Cameron's own admission, "something of an ideal construction." Though Bwami is thought to be hundreds of years old, little is known of its history before the 19th century, and chaos of the period since then has kept the society in a traumatic state of flux.
The region where the Lega currently reside--now known as the Kiva Province in the western region of the Republic of Congo--was ravaged by Tarab slave and ivory traders in the last half of the 19th century, colonized by Belgium (which twice outlawed Bwami) in the first half of the 20th, reorganized by revolution in the 1960s, and has been plagued with civil strife ever since. The Lega lost vast numbers of their artworks over the course of Tarab and Belgian rule, and the number of classically trained Bwami artists is thought to have dwindled out completely by the 1930s.
Outsiders know little of the state of Bwami today, but Cameron suspects that it has persisted underground, continually adapting its aesthetic forms to fit the changing times.
Perhaps because all of the objects in "Art of the Lega" come to the exhibition from a single American collection--that of Jay T. Last, a co-founder of the first semiconductor company in Silicon Valley who began to collect African art in the early 1960s (all of the objects in this show have either been given or are promised to the Fowler Museum)--it comes across, for better or worse, as strangely placeless and far removed from the turmoil of its homeland.
The layout of the exhibition roughly mimics an individual's journey through the several levels of Bwami, with a wide range of objects and abundant text in the beginning, giving way to sculpted objects and less text toward the end. The last room, like the final initiation, consists solely of unlabeled artworks, each displayed in a separate vitrine and lighted by a single spotlight.
Entering this semi-hallowed room and confronting these stunning objects on their own terms, it is easy to appreciate their mystical potency.
At the same time, however, the limits of this appreciation become quickly clear when one senses that, as Cameron writes (quoting Lega scholar Daniel Biebuyck), "for the uninitiated, the objects maintain a 'deliberate vagueness, nebulosity, and ambiguity' that helps to preserve their power within Bwami."
We (museum visitors, Angelenos, Americans) are not among the initiated. Indeed, we're not even traditionally entitled to set eyes on many of these objects, and our opportunity to do so is uncomfortably dependent on the colonialist intrusion that took such a toll on Lega culture a century ago.
But with the help of exhibitions as learned, thorough and respectful as this, we're heading in the right direction.
UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, UCLA campus, (310) 825-4361, through March 10. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.