Luba Art and Divination

by Mary Nooter Roberts
University of California, Los Angeles

Luba diviner’s wife with nkishi figures, Katanga Province, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 1988. Photo by Mary Nooter Roberts.

Diviners and healers use an array of nkishi (sculpted human figures) for particular problems and purposes: some provide general protection; some catch thieves; others help retrieve lost articles. The two figures shown here served to reverse sterility. An nkishi is considered an inanimate piece of wood until charged with bijimba (magical substances). Bijimba generally consist of tiny fragments of things and experiences that together create what Luba and Tabwa peoples call "a little world." Bijimba may be enclosed in a horn inserted in the figure's head, embedded in tiny holes carved at the figure's ears, temples, or other points of articulation. By charging a figure in this way, a spirit to inhabit the figure and endows it with extraordinary powers, so that it can assist the diviner in his or her attempts to change the world for the better.