Art of the Lega: Meaning and Metaphor in Central Africa

  • Mask, early 20th century|Wood, paint|Fowler Museum at UCLA. Gift of Jay T. Last
  • Hat, n.d.|Plant fiber, hornbill, tusks, cowries, shells, teeth, bone|Fowler Museum at UCLA. Gift of Jay T. Last
  • Mask, ca. 1900|Wood|Fowler Museum at UCLA. Gift of Jay T. Last
  • Spoon, n.d.|Ivory|Fowler Museum at UCLA. Gift of Jay T. Last
  • Anthropomorphic Figure, n.d.|Wood|Fowler Museum at UCLA. Gift of Jay T. Last
  • Figure with perforated torso, 19th century|Wood|Fowler Museum at UCLA. Gift of Jay T. Last

Available from 2017 through 2019.

Art of the Lega: Meaning and Metaphor in Central Africa explores the art of the Lega peoples of the Democratic Republic of the Congo through a rich array of more than two hundred magnificent anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figures, masks, and ceremonial accoutrements in wood, bone, and ivory.
These objects likely date to the nineteenth century or earlier, when the Bwami society, a semisecret association instilling ethical, social, and political values, flourished in the Lega community. A changing series of carefully arranged objects imparted lessons to Bwami initiates as they moved through successive levels of the society. The heart of the exhibition parallels the stages of the Bwami initiation process, beginning with simple found objects used in the lower levels of the society, moving to zoomorphic figures, and finally to the human figures and masks of the highest levels.

These works are the result of great artistic freedom and display a wealth of stylistic variety. Lega artists worked in seclusion, creating pieces on commission from high-ranking Bwami members who provided limited information about the required gender, size, and gesture of the work of art. Art of the Lega includes baskets, stools, rattles, spoons, and masks specific to initiations and performances, as well as objects that were used daily to proclaim rank and status, such as stakes, hats, necklaces, belts, and girdles.

Drawn from promised and donated gifts to the Fowler Museum at UCLA, one of the world’s most important collections of this material, Art of the Lega is the result of new scholarship and interpretation, as well as previous scholarship undertaken with the participation of Lega elders. The exhibition was originally developed by the Fowler Museum and the Nelson-Atkins Museum, traveled to the Musée du quai Branly in Paris, and is now traveling under the auspices of the AFA.


The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated scholarly catalogue written by the guest curator, Elisabeth L. Cameron.


Elisabeth L. Cameron is professor of History of Art and Visual Culture at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She is the author of Reclusive Rebels: An Approach to the Sala Mpasu and their Neighbors (San Diego Mesa College, 1991); Isn’t S/He a Doll? Play and Ritual in African Sculpture (UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 1996); The Art of the Lega (UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 2001), and she is the co-editor of Portraiture & Photography in Africa (Indiana University Press, 2013).


For more information, contact Curator of Exhibitions Margery King at 212.988.7700 ext. 246 or


The exhibition and tour are co-organized by the Fowler Museum at UCLA and the American Federation of Arts.