The University of Iowa University of Iowa

Luba Art and Divination

by Mary Nooter Roberts (1960-2018)
University of California, Los Angeles

Luba village chief and wife displaying staff of office, Katanga Province, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 1989. Photo by Mary Nooter Roberts.

Luba rulers and certain dignitaries possess elegant staffs that affirm their power and position. Hereditary objects passed down the royal line, staffs played a critical part in precolonial investiture processes, during which the chief’s sister and/or first wife preceded him with the staff and placed it next to the throne. The ruler held the staff as he swore his oath of office. Beyond their roles as prestige emblems, staffs still serve as historical documents; their forms and designs encode information about their owners' lineage history. Like chronicles and witnesses to the past, these emblems document the local-level political histories that constituted the larger Luba state. A Luba staff is like a map, to be read from top to bottom, for a staff tells the story of an individual family, lineage, or chiefdom and of how kingship came to a particular region.