In Focus

Luba Concepts of Feminine Beauty: Standing female figure

Luba girls learn that a woman is not born beautiful but becomes so as a result of modifications to her face and body. This process begins at puberty, as part of the coming-of-age rituals (butanda) that transform girls into physically beautiful, sexually attractive, and therefore, highly eligible women who can fulfill their destiny as wives and mothers. Their teeth are filed, their hair is arranged into elegant hairstyles, and their bodies are decorated with beaded jewelry. In addition to having their labia extended, their bodies are decorated with strategically placed scarification patterns.

Achieving such modifications and enhancements is not without pain, but in Luba thought the pain thus suffered makes the woman strong. This is especially important if she is destined to serve as the receptacle for a spirit, possibly that of a deceased king. The gesture of holding the breasts with one's hands signifies a woman's responsibility to guard the secrets of royal power or other important knowledge tucked in her breasts.

The Dallas standing female figure elegantly visualizes Luba concepts of feminine beauty, maturity, and civilization. The figure is elaborately decorated with scarification (ntapo). The named patterns are inspired by things in nature and include: milalo, the horizontal, parallel lines below the navel on the lower abdomen; lunenyenye, or "star," the large welt below the breasts; kisanji, or music, the clustered marks on either side of the navel; and the round protuberances above each buttock, called meso a tete or grasshopper eyes. Another Luba criterion of physcial beauty and sexual attractiveness on the sculpture is its glossy surface. Before retiring at night, a Luba woman heightened her attractiveness by applying oil to her scarified skin "so that it will gleam in the dim lamplight of her bedroom chamber." A 19th century practice was to oil the sculpture. Nearly a century after its departure from Africa, the Dallas figure still exudes oil.

The figure once surmounted a carved wooden staff (luswaga) that served as a judicial emblem among the Luba peoples of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The missing shaft ended in a metal rod that was planted in the ground during rituals. The figure is clearly an object of great spiritual significance because it carries a leather-covered "charge" inserted into the top of the figure's head. The charge contains potent, supernatural medicine.

Excerpt from

Roslyn A. Walker, The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), 136.