Art and Centralized Power

By Mary Nooter Roberts
University of California, Los Angeles

Democratic Republic of the Congo; Luba artist

Royal stool


H. 37.5 cm (15")

University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art, The Stanley Collection, X1986.457

The soul of each Luba kingship is literally enshrined in a throne. When a Luba king died, his royal residence was preserved for posterity as a "spirit capital," where his memory was perpetuated through a spirit medium. This site became known as a kitenta (“seat”)—a symbolic seat of remembrance and power, which would continue the king's reign. The king's stool, a concrete symbol of this larger and more metaphysical "seat," expresses the most fundamental precepts of Luba power and dynastic succession. Luba stools were rarely intended for viewing. Swathed in white cloth and guarded fastidiously by an appointed official, stools were brought out only on rare occasions. Their purpose was to serve as receptacles for the king's spirit, rather than as functional objects in themselves. The rarity of their viewing accords with the idea that many insignia were not intended primarily for human eyes, but the spirit world.

Luba chief with a throne, Katanga Province, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 1989. Photo by Mary Nooter Roberts.