Women as Diviners

By Eileen Moyer
University of Amsterdam (formerly University of Iowa)

Democratic Republic of the Congo; Luba artist

Female figure with bowl


H. 52.7 cm (20 ¾”)

University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art, The Stanley Collection of African Art, X1986.322

In many Western traditions women are portrayed as untrustworthy and unable to keep secrets, particularly in the realm of politics.  Just the opposite is often the case in African societies.  Mary Nooter Roberts has showed through her work with Luba peoples of Democratic Republic of the Congo, that women are recognized as the primary keepers of societal secrets.  These secrets are not trivial bits of gossip, but rather the history and memories of Luba peoples as a whole.  Women are represented in nearly all Luba sculpture, and many objects symbolically represent the secrecy and power associated with women.  Other objects may serve as mnemonic memory devices for diviners, such as the one in this field photograph (Nooter Roberts 1996).

Luba artist, Democratic Republic of the Congo, royal diviner. Photo by Mary Nooter Roberts.