In Focus

Four-faced half figure (Sakimatwematwe)

The Lega do not have a centralized political system. Instead, leadership and governance are vested in Bwami, a graded association open to both men and women that teaches values of moderation, nonviolence, kinship, respect, constraint and moral as well as physical beauty. It was also the major channel for prestige and the sole motivation for the visual arts.

Not all members reach the highest grades of Bwami. The few that do become the moral and philosophical elite and they are entitled to possess particular emblems appropriate to their status. These emblems, which are accumulated over time, include carved wood or ivory sculptures that illustrate proverbs or aphorisms about moral perfection.

The multiheaded figure known as Sakimatwematwe, or “many heads,” illustrates the proverb “Sakimatwematwe has seen an elephant on the other side of the large river” and teaches Bwami members to be openminded, wise, and fair. This meaning applies to any multiheaded figure. The Museum’s example has a meaningful form that stops not at the base of the neck but becomes a stool with legs bending outward at an angle. Among the Lega, only high-ranking individuals possess stools in the Bwami society. Explanations of such figures demonstrate the complex teachings of the Bwami society and the layered meanings of its sculptures.

The aphorism refers to the cylindrical base of the seat and base. The seat and base are referred to here as two opposing heads, a theme frequently represented on anthropomorphic figurines. Many-Heads is a symbol of the wisdom, perspicacity, and equitableness of the kindi (one of the highest grades in Bwami). Everybody can achieve status and self expression through Bwami: “Every chair has an open space; every mulega [member of the Lega] is [a potential] wabume [one who has virility and manhood, poise and character, and status; one who is fully human].” The statement, “The chair was very bad; bukenga leaves have made me shine around the eyes,” bears on the beautiful gloss obtained by sanding the chair with lubenga leaves and by oiling it. The reference is to a man whose goodness or whose kanyamwa wife (both represented by the lubenga leaf) have brought him fame. An uninitiated person is in darkness; bwami brings light and gives greatness (shine) to people. The typical bend in the legs of the chair is reminiscent of death: “The branch of the nkungu tree: the bending is the reason why it dies.” The aphorism refers not merely to knees bent by old age, but to the use of a bent branch of the tree to tear off the head of the decomposing corpse.

Excerpt from

Roslyn A. Walker, "Four-faced half figure (Sakimatwematwe)," in The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), 64.