Luba Art and Divination

by Mary Nooter Roberts
University of California, Los Angeles

Luba female diviner reading contents of a gourd, Katanga Province, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 1988. Photo by Mary Nooter Roberts.

While Bilumbu diviners communicate with their possessing spirits by incantations, songs, and percussion, the spirits respond through visual codes, including the kinetic arrangement of items in a gourd. The gourds contain a wide assortment of natural and manufactured items, including small figurative sculptures that stand for various conditions, states of being, and aspirations. Diviners shake the gourd while asking their possessing spirit a series of questions, then "read" the arrangement of figures as they land and fall next to one another. From these, the diviner begins to form "organizing images" and a hypothesis concerning the client's difficulty. The process is repeated until a relatively clear picture of the problem has emerged. The juxtapositions of the gourd's objects remind diviners of certain general rubrics and relationships through which they can classify the client's specific case.