The Luba empire

The Luba empire was founded in 1585 in the Upemba depression by King Kongolo.
His nephew and successor, Kalala Ilunga, rapidly expanded the kingdom to encompass all the territories on the upper left bank of the Lualaba River. At its peak, about one million people, living in several tribes, were paying tribute to the Luba king. At the end of the igth century, with the advance of the Ovimbudu people from Angola and the raids of the East African Muslim slavers, the empire weakened and, in fact, collapsed when the Belgian colonials took control.

Tabouret Luba Master of Muenza

Tabouret Luba Master of Muenza

With the assistance of a court of notables, called Bamfumus, the king, known as the Mulopwe, reigned over his subjects through clan kings called Balopwe. These clan kings could symbolically become the Mulopwe’s son which created client states throughout the empire. A secret society, Bambudye, kept the memory of the Luba empire alive and permeated throughout Luba territory, bonding the diverse populations together. The Luba empire economy was complex — it was based on a tribute system and the redistribution of resources from agriculture, fishing, hunting and mining. The production of salt and iron was under the king’s control.

Luba artists created numerous objects that related to the royal court activities. Prestige objects were usually decorated with female figures which are omnipresent in Luba art. As the Luba empire extends over a vast territory, there are a large number of stylistic variations. Luba artists showed their social status through the adze they carry on their shoulders.

Luba mask 19 century perfil

Superb Luba mask 19 century

Luba masks are rare and are primarily found in the eastern Luba kingdoms. Some masks  are very similar to the Kifwebe mask used by the Songye, although they display more rounded features. Zoomorphic masks  are extremely rare and their use is unclear.


Luba artists carved kneeling or standing female figures, called Mboko, who were usually holding cups for divination purposes .
Standing figures, believed to represent forest spirits or ancestors, are rare and are usually covered by an oily patina that comes from continuous libations.
Smaller figures, called Bankishi, and friction devices known as Katatora are used by Luba diviners.

Luba bowl bearer « master of Kiloko » XX century

Luba bowl bearer « master of Kiloko » XX century

The Luba produced numerous prestige objects —anthropomorphic caryatid stools, bowstands
spears, staffs, pipes , axes and neckrests which were adorned with figures and were used during official ceremonies or to display wealth.Ivory apotropaic amulets were worn by some Luba people.
Luba terracotta vessels are often decorated with incised geometric motifs.


Luba MAsk

The 1oo,000 Luba people, who live in the Upemba depression and along the Upper Lualaba River, form the nucleus of the Luba empire. This area is in a strategic position since from this point the river traffic can be controlled.
There are three regional artistic styles.

  1. The first, known as Mwanza , emanates from the north, along the Lualaba River, and is characterized by figures carved from a light blackened wood which have enlarged rounded heads.
  2. The second style, called Upemba , is centred around the homony-mous lake, and includes figures carved from a light brown wood. Characteristically, they have an elongated torso and a cascading coiffure.
  3. The third s tyle, known as Mitwaba, comprises statues carved from black wood that are similar to the Upemba style, but they have less elongated torsos.

The 30,000 Luba Kalundwe people have lived on the western side of the Luba empire, on the Luembe River, since the 17th century, and their statues are characterized by a coiffure divided into several buns set on the back of their heads.

W.F.P Burton The personal Woodcarver of Luba chief. Vers 1927-1935 Copyright: University of the Witwatersand, Johannesburg, South Africa

W.F.P Burton
The personal Woodcarver of Luba chief.
Vers 1927-1935
Copyright: University of the Witwatersand, Johannesburg, South Africa

The 200,000 Luba Shankadi people are divided into independent clans under the control of a hereditary chief, known as the Mulowhe. The Shankadi artistic style is characterized by a tiered coiffure.
A number of regional stylistic variations occur among the Shankadi: the classical style , the Sungu style  and the south-western style . The ‘Master of the Cascade’ style is characterized by an exaggerated coiffure divided into large, spreading planes.

The 250,0 o o Luba-Kasai people live on the western side of the Luba empire, on the Lubilash River. Their artistic production reflects the influence of their neighbours, the Luba, the Songye, the Lulua and the Kanyok. They carve fetish figures characterized by a typical vertical scarification running under the mouth or on to an elongated neck.


Luba Stool

The 30,000 Zela people live between the Luvua River and Lake Kisale, on the eastern border of the Luba empire. The Zela artistic style is characterized by the use of a light brown wood, a ridged, backward-sloping coiffure and by body scarifications.

On the left bank of the Lualaba River, to the north of the Luba empire, Zula people have used rare stools (to) and neckrests with seated female figures whose arms and legs are carved in a typical ‘W’ shape.

The Kanyok people, on the eastern side of the Luba empire, are renowned for prestige objects and a series of anecdotal figures, some of which depict erotic couples , crouching figures and musicians. They were carved from a black wood and tend to be characterized by a mouth of filed teeth and a coiffure divided into several buns.

The 1o,000 Kasongo people were colonized by the Luba during the i8th century and occupy the north­ern border of the empire. Kasongo carvers produced, from a reddish wood, small apotropaic figures with elongated beards which show a typical triangular hollowed head containing fetish material.

The Tribal Arts of Africa: Surveying Africa’s Artistic Geography

Autor: Jean-Baptiste Bacquart
Publisher: Thames and Hudson Ltd; New edition edition (19 Aug. 2002)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0500282315
ISBN-13: 978-0500282311