Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

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3 / History and Memory

Memory Board (lukasa)
Memory Board (lukasa)
Artist / Origin Luba artist, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Region: Africa
Date 20th century
Material Wood, beads, nails, cowrie shells
Medium: Sculpture
Dimensions H: 7 ¾ in. (19.7 cm.), W: 5 in. (12.7 cm.), D: 2 in. (5.1 cm.)
Location Cantor Arts Center, Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA
Credit Courtesy of the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University

expert perspective

Mary Nooter RobertsProfessor of Culture and Performance, University of California, Los Angeles

Additional Resources

Blier, Suzanne Preston. The Royal Arts of Africa: The Majesty of Form. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2003.

Kreamer, Christine Mullen, et al. Inscribing Meaning: Writing and Graphic Systems in African Art. Milan: 5 Continents, 2007.

Roberts, Mary Nooter, and Allen F. Roberts. Luba: Visions of Africa. Milan and New York: 5 Continents, 2007.

Roberts, Mary Nooter, and Allen F. Roberts. Memory: Luba Art and the Making of History. New York: Prestel, 1996.

Visona, Monica, et al. A History of Art in Africa. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2003.

Memory Board (lukasa)

» Luba artist, Democratic Republic of the Congo

The Luba kingdom emerged as a powerful political entity in Central Africa as early as the seventeenth century.

Key to the successful expansion of the Luba was a form of government that combined divine kingship and rule by council. As is often the case with empires built on dynastic rule, politics were closely associated with history for the Luba.

The mbudye association was created in the 1700s as a council charged with preserving and interpreting both the political systems of the Luba state and its history. Lukasa, or memory boards, are mnemonic devices that enable the elite members of this community to recall information concerning genealogy, court ceremony, cultural heroes, clan migrations and the location of things within the royal compound or tribal territory. A lukasa might also map out “spirit capitals,” palaces of deceased rulers abandoned by new kings to become receptacles of the former kings’ memory. Because they are keepers of knowledge critical to sustaining the rituals and authority kingship, members of the mbudye association play an important role in the balance of power. The close association of the lukasa with rulership is attested to by the back of the board, which is carved to resemble a tortoise, a Luba symbol of royalty.

Made of wood planks, some lukasa are simply carved in relief, while others, like this one, are first carved and then studded with beads and shells. All the elements of the board carry symbolic meaning, as do their placement in relationship to one another. “Reading” the lukasa involves holding the board in the left hand and tracing the designs and symbols with the right forefinger. To “read” a lukasa demands much more than verbalizing static meaning conveyed through visual signs. Rather, it calls for the interpretation of those symbols as they relate not only to the past, but also to the present. The ability to decipher and interpret the markings on lukasa, therefore, requires extensive training and is the exclusive domain of those individuals who have passed to the highest levels of the mbudye association.


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