New Materials and Contexts

By Mary Nooter Roberts
University of California, Los Angeles

Luba peoples, Democratic Republic of the Congo, divination. Photo by Mary Nooter Roberts.

While most Westerners would never collect an aluminum cup as an example of “traditional” African art, Luba diviners would argue that a tin cup is as spiritually effective as the more beautiful and labor-intensive sculpted wooden figures used for kashekesheke divination, for the power that effects the divination resides not in the figure itself, but in the diviner’s hand that manipulates the divinatory instrument. Prior to becoming a practicing kashekesheke specialist, a diviner must have incisions of medicine made into the right hand. When the hand meets the instrument, the other side of which is held by the client, the instrument is activated to receive and interpret the spirit's message. It becomes a conduit of knowledge, a channel for accessing otherwise hidden sources of truth and reality. Just as divination accommodates perpetually changing circumstances, so do the instruments of divination reflect those changes and assimilate them into the process itself.