A terrific little exhibition of carved wood sculptures inaugurates the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's first gallery exclusively dedicated to the display of the arts of Africa. On the second floor of the Hammer building the newly renovated space is not large: Big exhibitions often have entryways that are bigger. And it's not uncommon to see shows with educational texts covering more wall space than is occupied by this compact show.
But bigger is not always better. The 27 ceremonial objects that make up "Shaping Power: Luba Masterworks from the Royal Museum for Central Africa" are scaled to the human body. Many are made to fit in the hand, on the head or under one's neck, while sleeping. Each needs to be seen up-close and in person.
All of the ancestral figures, medicinal bowls, regal staffs, double-sided cups and elaborate masks resonate alongside their neighbors. This allows first-time visitors and more experienced viewers to see the stylistic consistencies that unify these fascinating objects and to notice the idiosyncrasies that distinguish one from another. Sometimes the hand of a specific artist is revealed. More often anonymous adaptations amplify each piece's accessibility, not to mention its humanity. Such range reveals a robust, visually sophisticated culture.
Most of the boldly stylized works were made in the 19th century, when the Luba reached the height of their influence. Indigenous to the marshy grasslands that have, since 1960, been part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Luba first appeared as a people in the fifthcentury. In the 16th they coalesced as a unified state and their power grew steadily, peaking from 1780 to 1870. Then blocked trade routes, violent infighting and their own misadventures as slave traders led to their decline, which was exacerbated by colonialism and the cruelties of Leopold II, king of Belgium.
The Luba system of semi-divine kingship was essential to their economic clout and cultural dominance. Its pragmatism can be seen in the indefatigable earnestness and salt-of-the-earth elegance of nearly every figure in the show.
Just inside the main entrance a golden brown stool, or portable throne, is supported by a squatting adult female whose furrowed brow, closed eyes and tightly pressed lips suggest not beatific calm but the intense concentration that accompanies great physical efforts. Only 14 inches tall, the regal seat honors the behind-the-scene labors on which all ceremonial displays are based.
Ordinary folks, going above and beyond their level-best efforts, appear in the functional stools, headrests, staffs and vessels, as well as water pipe, ax handle and bow stand. Inner strength, not boastful showing-off, forms the heart and soul of Luba art, whose impact is all the more potent for its self-contained dignity.
A royal bowl is stabilized by two figures that wrap their limbs around its body and rest their chins on its lip, holding its cover in place. Their wonderfully asymmetrical faces convey the strain of concentrated labor. This utilitarian masterpiece gives stunning form to that magical moment when unendurable struggle gives way to hard-won serenity. Emotionally it shares less with the unflappable poise — or pose — of European aristocrats and more with the workingman self-sufficiency of good old American ingenuity.
Such inward-turning self-reliance is embodied by nearly every figure, whose closed eyes put some distance between their inner worlds and our own, all the better to draw us into the contemplative space they occupy.
Organized by Mary Nooter Roberts, LACMA's consulting curator for African Art, and Anne-Marie Bouttiaux, head of the Ethnography division, Royal Museum for Central Africa, in Tervuren, Belgium, the exhibition is accompanied by an installation by contemporary artist Aime Mpane. His piece, which memorializes victims of the ongoing violence in the Congo, stands on its own and is not well-served by its role as an addendum to "Luba Masterworks."
"Shaping Power: Luba Masterworks from the Royal Museum for Central Africa," Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., through Jan. 5, 2014. Closed Wednesdays. (323) 857-6000, www.lacma.org