Lumbu is an ethnonym designating inhabitants of southwestern Gabon and the Republic of Congo. They were part of the coastal groups involved in the Atlantic trade as middlemen between Europeans and the peoples of the interior. As a result, a significant portion of the artistic production collected on the Loango Coast and in its hinterland has been ascribed to them.1
The beautifully illustrated book written by Charlotte Grand-Dufay is devoted to this corpus. The author is to be commended for having been able to gather famous pieces in addition to others that have remained largely unknown until now.
A feast for the eyes, Les Lumbu is less convincing as far as its scientific value is concerned. Edited by gallery owner Bernard Dulon, it is mainly of interest to the art market. Emphasis is placed on the acquisition of objects by art dealers and collectors, while most of the few scholars who did serious fieldwork in southwestern Gabon and the Republic of Congo are neglected. Unsurprisingly, the monograph opens with coverage of masks, as if these artworks, valued for a long time by Westerners and pictured among masterpieces of modern art (Figs. 18, 19, 21[a]), were aimed at highlighting the rest of the corpus with their aura.
In her approach, Grand-Dufay also conforms to the expectations of the private sector, as she sticks to the ethnic prism, through which the art of southwestern Gabon and Congo has been interpreted for too long (LaGamma 1995:4–9). Yet in those regions, as elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, practices and institutions such as initiation societies often transcend ethnic limits (LaGamma 2000a:149), a context which has contributed to the mobility of artistic “traits” (Perrois 1997:224, no. 312), as well as of the artifacts themselves. Due to the various sources documenting those processes over time, the Atlantic fringe of Central Africa constitutes a promising field of study for art historians (see Klieman 2007).
This is not the line taken by Grand-Dufay, unconcerned with what Jan Vansina called “the danger of using ethnic groups as units of observation,” even in southern Gabon (1990:20), and visibly indifferent, despite her training as an historian, to the fluency of ethnic affiliations through time. Her interest in initiation associations does not go beyond Mwiri, Nyembe, and Bwiti, the latter being described as a “tribal ‘religion’” (pp. 134 and 156, my trans.). Mboyo is hardly mentioned. None of its ritual objects are illustrated, while it seems possible, on the basis of various documents, to identify some of them within the corpus generally attributed to the Massango (Formanoir, forthcoming).
Discussing style in ethnic terms, Grand-Dufay does not seem afraid to contradict herself, as she admits that “style is not the characteristic expression of a given tribal group,” adding that “it cannot be located” (p. 36, my trans.). Most of the artworks illustrated in her monograph do not have any field data. There are, for example, many small figures surmounting a sculpted interlace or round form about which nothing precise is known. Considered by Grand-Dufay to be “amulets,” they are presented in her book as a “jewel of Lumbu art” (p. 163, my trans). Other objects, including some items previously published as “Punu” by Grand-Dufay herself (Perrois and Grand-Dufay 2008:pls. 54, 55, 59), receive the same arbitrary attribution to a hypothetical “Lumbu style” or simply to the Lumbu.
Grand-Dufay's interpretation of this so-called Lumbu corpus is even more arguable. While the author worked with Louis Perrois on a stylistic classification of the so-called white masks of southwestern Gabon and the Republic of Congo, she seems less informed on the statuary. This is immediately evident from what she writes about Bwiti, one of the most visible contexts in which figure sculpture is still ritually used in southern Gabon. Grand-Dufay never alludes to Ndjobi, whose existence as a specific branch of Bwiti is well attested and which is more generally known as the “Bwiti of the south” (Gaulme 1979:42, my trans.; see also Bonhomme 2003:14). She also conveys the idea that the last Lumbu still devoted to Bwiti would be those located in “remote villages” (p. 264, my trans.). The rural exodus is, however, far more ancient than she proposes, and Lumbu, like other groups, have sometimes kept Bwiti of their own region alive in urban centers.
The author's presentation of the figures attached to bundles is equally debatable. It is worth stressing that the function of this kind of object, usually used within the framework of Bwiti but also beyond, is not as well known as suggested by Grand-Dufay. The author categorizes all of them as reliquary ensembles, as if every half or standing figure previously put in a bundle served as a guardian for the ancestral bones that it must have contained. Scientific analysis of one of these objects, belonging to the Musée du quai Branly–Jacques Chirac, Paris (Inv. 71.1943.0.433 X) and reproduced in Grand-Dufay's monograph (Fig. 31) as a “complete reliquary ensemble” (p. 142, my trans.), showed that it actually seems devoid of human remains (Mohen and Dubrana 2006:163–64; LaGamma 2007:288). As a result, one might legitimately wonder if all the objects of this kind were exclusively associated with ancestral cults (Mohen and Dubrana 2006:163–64; see also Perrois 1997:224, no. 312).
The author claims to be the first to reveal certain objects, which is sometimes inaccurate, as is the case with a figure (Fig. 71) formerly in the collection of Gaston de Havenon (Museum of African Art 1971: Fig. 212). She also seems to ignore work done by others, or misrepresents their words. In so doing she feels permitted to assert that the Lumbu share with some of their neighbors the “same homogeneous and continuous culture of the Kongo of Africa” (p. 16, my trans.). This generalizing approach, partly inspired by the work of Robert Farris Thompson, is a source of misinterpretation, notably when Grand-Dufay deals with the full-length figures of her corpus and tries to explain their “realism” (p. 73, my trans.). The author identifies them as ancestor figures, shaped in their own image and dedicated to their cult. She presents them as nkisi, a word that does not belong to the Yilumbu lexicon and that the nearest peoples from the Kongo linguistic area do not use themselves in reference to power figures (Hersak 2001:618). In Yilumbu, as well as in Yipunu, those figurative objects are generally referred to by my field informants as bitumba (sg. itumba) (see also Mavoungou and Plumel 2010:311, Bonneau 1956:135). Some of them are more specifically defined as tsikosi/bakosi (Mavoungou and Plumel 2010:340, Bonneau 1956:139), a term that Alisa LaGamma applied to various figures reproduced in Grand-Dufay's book (LaGamma 2000a:pl. II and 147, fig. 10.1; 2000b: no. 7, ill.; 2002:137, Fig. 52). The word kosi (sg.) refers in the narrowest sense to a divination practice whose expert is still known in southern Gabon as nganga kosi (see LaGamma 1995:99, 119–25). The latter has recourse to the kosi as a magical device designed to enslave the “life force” of someone whose image can also be caught through this process (LaGamma 1995:121, 2000b:29). This might explain the naturalism that typifies many power figures wrongly interpreted by Grand-Dufay as mere ancestor images. According to one of LaGamma's informants, the figures which served as kosi could rather be considered as effigies of witchcraft victims (LaGamma 1995:121–22). It has also been noted that kosi figures would be “portraits” of “sacrificed” individuals (LaGamma 1995:121) or, at least, objects activated by the “spirit of a deceased,” as noted by Hersak in the Kouilou, among her Vili and Yombe informants (2001:619–20).
Looking over her corpus of objects through the lens of a monolithic Kongo universe, Grand-Dufay also fails to address the ambivalence of some of the artifacts gathered together at the end of her monograph under the heading “Sacred Objects” (p. 221, my trans.). The author presents them as regalia handled by the “king” (p. 224, my trans.) or by the “crowned chief” (p. 258, my trans.). Staffs or fly-whisks are indisputably considered as emblems of power throughout southern Gabon. One should bear in mind, however, that notwithstanding the influence exercised in the past by a kingdom such as Loango at its northernmost fringe, the region has long been characterized by a high degree of decentralization (Gray 2002:35). Moreover, field investigations reveal that nowadays in southern Gabon, some of those artifacts, occasionally hereditary, are not only held by village or clan heads, but also by diviners-healers (LaGamma 2000a:150, ill.) and by other members of initiation societies, which have long been the most important institutions, in terms of local governance (Vansina 1990:158–59, Gray 2002:12). It is therefore not surprising that some of those objects are often kept next to Bwiti effigies, as described by the ethnomusicologist Pierre Sallée (1985:130). Yet Grand-Dufay does not mention his doctoral dissertation, his recordings, or his photographs taken during his investigations in southern Gabon in the 1960s and 1970s.2 This field documentation is still a rare example that illustrates the use of a range of objects similar to the ones presented by Grand-Dufay as mbumba bwiti. One can even recognize in some of the field images taken by Sallée a figure analogous to some others, perhaps too quickly qualified as “atypical” by Grand-Dufay (Figs. 104 and 106). Another figure reproduced in her book (Figs. 84a and b), now housed in a private collection, also appears on one of these field shots. The omission of such an important work certainly constitutes one of the most flawed aspects of Grand-Dufay's selective monograph.
The virtue of this book is, nevertheless, that it will awaken interest for a multiethnic region whose art is still misunderstood and deserves further research.
The same is true for other ethnic attributions in the region. See LaGamma (1995:4–5).
Field photographs housed at the Archives sonores du CNRS–Musée de l'Homme, CREM, LESC – UMR 7186, CNRS/Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense, Fonds Pierre Sallée.