Katanda figure, Democratic Republic of the Congo

, 20th century

Wood, natural pigment

11 1/4 x 3 3/4 x 3 1/7 in. (28.5 x 9.5 x 8 cm)


About this object

All Lega art was once owned and used within the structure of the Bwami society, a voluntary association for men and women. Bwami itself means “king.” The Bwami is a type of society that can be found from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Sierra Leone; these societies are usually especially strong in cultures like the Lega, which lack centralized authority. The Lega peoples are unified not by chiefs but by Bwami, which cuts across clans and territories. Each region and even some villages have their own varieties of Bwami, and non-Lega are admitted into the cult as true equals, despite the usual Lega suspicion of outsiders. The society safeguards the moral and social code necessary for the Lega to live together in harmony.

The society is composed of levels or grades. Throughout a lifetime, an individual may choose to climb to the highest levels of knowledge and leadership. Entry into any grade takes place through an intensive initiation (mpala) that lasts several days and incorporates seven or eight performances. It is during this time that the owners or guardians of Bwami objects bring them out, displaying and manipulating them in combination with music, drama, dance, and saying proverbs. The Bwami initiate becomes master of an incredible number of proverbs having to do with ordinary life. The mass of proverbs generates a symbolic world, which is their true meaning. Up to 300 proverbs may be recited, explained to the candidate, and danced out in vivid drama. Through these layered performances, which can be viewed as visual metaphors, initiates learn the moral code of their society. They are forced to consider the juxtapositions of manufactured objects, carvings (including animal figures, human figures, and masks), sayings, dance, and drama, and to discern their meanings (Cameron 2002: 48).

The Lega peoples recognize multiple categories of human figures in sculpture. Members of the two highest levels of Bwami can individually or collectively own these images. However, all figures are initiation objects and share certain characteristics: they appear in layered metaphors; they present positive and negative role models of the Bwami ethical system; they are viewed only during initiations. Therefore, non-initiated members or Bwami members of lower ranks do not see or theoretically know about their existence (Cameron 2002: 54). Lega sculptures that teach initiates moral precepts through verbal arts are carved from wood and ivory, with natural objects included in object displays to enrich meaning-making. Human and animal forms are the most prominent subject matter (Roberts 2017: 68).

This piece in the Bët-bi collection is an example of a katanda figure. In Lega thought, sleeping mats (katanda) imply laziness and sexual laxity. An often-used metaphor compares a swarm of red ants (katanda ke ibazi) to a mat of ants. Furthermore, a sexually promiscuous person (also understood metaphorically as a mat) spreads disorder in a community in the same way that red ants can besiege a town. The holes in the katanda represent the destruction caused by ants. It signifies evil and thus has essentially negative implications. As Klopper wrote, it is “important to realize that while the moral philosophy of the Lega appears to be revealed in the formal schemata of their carvings, the sculptures used in Bwami initiation ceremonies can never be reduced to crude categories of meaning. Whether they are representations of essentially positive, negative, or even contradictory concepts, they are generally characterized by very rich associations that give breadth and depth to their meanings.” (Klopper 1985: 69).

Cameron, Elisabeth. “Art of the Lega: Meaning and Metaphor in Central Africa.” African Arts 35, no. 2 (Summer 2002): 44-65+92.

Klopper, Sandra. “Speculations on Lega Figurines.” African Arts 19, no. 1 (November 1985): 64-69+88.

Roberts, Mary Nooter. “The Inner Eye. Vision and Transcendence in African Arts.” African Arts 50, no. 1 (Spring 2017): 60-79.

Zuesse, Evan M. “Action as the Way of Transcendence: The Religious Significance of the Bwami Cult of the Lega.” Journal of Religion in Africa 9, 1 (1978): 62-72.