Art and Centralized Power

By Mary Nooter Roberts
University of California, Los Angeles

Democratic Republic of the Congo; Luba peoples

Royal stool


H. 52 cm (20")

University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art, The Stanley Collection, X1986.434

There is a tendency to apply Western categories of sociopolitical organization to non-Western societies. Seldom do those terms reflect accurately the nature of power in African contexts, however. When considering highly centralized states, for example, Western political models do not account for the multicentered formations of power and the cosmological underpinnings of authority characteristic of many African societies. Luba kingdoms were called an "empire" by early colonial authorities seeking to impose their notions of power upon this central African region, and yet the Luba state was a far more flexible set of relationships that extended in a wide circle of influence rather than authority.

Luba peoples, Democratic Republic of the Congo, chief on throne. Engraving by V. I. Cameron.