Knowing your power: Luba spirituality and art

Luba child.jpg

To know of one’s power, what does this mean in practice? Power can often seem like a foreign concept that is far from our reach in a society which has constant consumption at its forefront. We see countless examples on a global scale of the consequences of being consumed by a desire to hoard power, which has exacerbated the commodification of people as well as the environment.  These examples raise an important question, namely, how do we connect and activate our power whilst not being consumed by it? When looking at African history, there are many examples that highlight the close connection to spirituality and art with power in societies. This close connection acted, in part, as a form of checks and balance to prohibit the risk of being consumed by power.

A great example that conveys the close connection with spirituality and art to power in African history can be seen in the history of the Luba people. The Luba Kingdom emerged around the seventeenth century covering areas within present day Congo and Zambia.  The importance of obtaining a sense of balance when connecting and activating power was a key feature in Luba authority as noted by Anthropologist Mary Nooter Roberts “the source of royal authority resided in the fluid border zones between maleness and femaleness, life and death, this world and the other, and the tenuous extremes of power embodied by the protagonists of the Luba epic”. Some examples that draw attention to the balance and fluidity of power in Luba society include:

Spirituality: The close association to the spirit world and physical world played a central role in Luba society due a strong belief that actions or intentions carried out in the physical world continue into the spiritual word. Therefore, the desire to ensure that bad intentions do not form a part of a person’s lineage would have affected the power structures by promoting good character, one example of this can be seen in the actions of the King in Luba Society, “spirits ensure that a  king  is  abiding  by royal prohibitions and exhibiting the most important qualities of dignity, which includes a good heart (muchima muyampe) and  a  spirit of generosity”. Spirits presided over many aspects of Luba daily life as a way of reminding people to be mindful of their actions. Examples of these include the Mwadi (the interlocker between a deceased king and the people), Nkambo Kayembo (the spirit presiding over trading) and Kilumba (the spirit presiding over Lake Boya).

Art: Art was a prominent feature within Luba society and was often used as a means of connecting to the spirit world as well as outlining the history and power structure within the Kingdom. Luba royal artifacts offer an insight to the balance of power, most of which are a depiction of the female figure due to the belief that ‘women constituted the covert side of sacred authority’. Despite the patriarchal nature of authority in Luba society, women played an important role as they were viewed as the foundations of the Kingdom.  The balance of the male and female essence, as depicted in Luba artifacts, draws attention to a fluidity in the Luba power structure.

The importance placed on spirituality and art helps in understanding the power structure in the history of the Luba people, which offers inspiration that we can apply to our lives. Namely, that power should be treated as an entity that is centred on balance and fluidity; to be powerful should not equate to the idea of hoarding power but instead activating our power by connecting within ourselves and our surroundings. To know and activate your power should not come at the expense of greed.


Luba religion and magic in custom and belief (1961) – William Burton

Art from an African Kingdom: Luba Masterworks from Central Africa – Mary Lenihan

The King is a Woman: Shaping Power in Luba Royal Arts – Mary Nooter Roberts

Art and centralized power – Mary Nooter Roberts

Art and Oracle: African Art and Rituals of Divination – Alisa LaGamma and John Pemberton III

*Image taken from Pinterest

(I do not own the rights of the picture in the post)

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