- Les Lumbu, un art sacré: bungeelë yi bayisi by Charlotte Grand-Dufay
by Charlotte Grand-Dufay
Paris: Éditions Gourcuff-Gradenigo and Galerie Bernard Dulon, 2016. 272 pp., 207 color, 29 b/w ill., map, bibliography. €69, cloth
Lumbu is an ethnonym designating inhabitants of southwestern Gabon and the Republic of Congo. They were part of the coastal groups involved in the Atlantic trade as middlemen between Europeans and the peoples of the interior. As a result, a significant portion of the artistic production collected on the Loango Coast and in its hinterland has been ascribed to them.1
The beautifully illustrated book written by Charlotte Grand-Dufay is devoted to this corpus. The author is to be commended for having been able to gather famous pieces in addition to others that have remained largely unknown until now.
A feast for the eyes, Les Lumbu is less convincing as far as its scientific value is concerned. Edited by gallery owner Bernard Dulon, it is mainly of interest to the art market. Emphasis is placed on the acquisition of objects by art dealers and collectors, while most of the few scholars who did serious fieldwork in southwestern Gabon and the Republic of Congo are neglected. Unsurprisingly, the monograph opens with coverage of masks, as if these artworks, valued for a long time by Westerners and pictured among masterpieces of modern art (Figs. 18, 19, 21[a]), were aimed at highlighting the rest of the corpus with their aura.
In her approach, Grand-Dufay also conforms to the expectations of the private sector, as she sticks to the ethnic prism, through which the art of southwestern Gabon and Congo has been interpreted for too long (LaGamma 1995:4–9). Yet in those regions, as elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, practices and institutions such as initiation societies often transcend ethnic limits (LaGamma 2000a:149), a context which has contributed to the mobility of artistic "traits" (Perrois 1997:224, no. 312), as well as of the artifacts themselves. Due to the various sources documenting those processes over time, the Atlantic fringe of Central Africa constitutes a promising field of study for art historians (see Klieman 2007).
This is not the line taken by Grand-Dufay, unconcerned with what Jan Vansina called "the danger of using ethnic groups as units of observation," even in southern Gabon (1990:20), and visibly indifferent, despite her training as an historian, to the fluency of ethnic affiliations through time. Her interest in initiation associations does not go beyond Mwiri, Nyembe, and Bwiti, the latter being described as a "tribal 'religion'" (pp. 134 and 156, my trans.). Mboyo is hardly mentioned. None of its ritual objects are illustrated, while it seems possible, on the basis of various documents, to identify some of them within the corpus generally attributed to the Massango (Formanoir, forthcoming).
Discussing style in ethnic terms, Grand-Dufay does not seem afraid to contradict herself, as she admits that "style is not the characteristic expression of a given tribal group," adding that "it cannot be located" (p. 36, my trans.). Most of the artworks illustrated in her monograph do not have any field data. There are, for example, many small figures surmounting a sculpted interlace or round form about which nothing precise is known. Considered by Grand-Dufay to be "amulets," they are presented in her book as a "jewel of Lumbu art" (p. 163, my trans). Other objects, including some items previously published as "Punu" by Grand-Dufay herself (Perrois and Grand-Dufay 2008:pls. 54, 55, 59), receive the same arbitrary attribution to a hypothetical "Lumbu style" or simply to the Lumbu.
Grand-Dufay's interpretation of this so-called Lumbu corpus is even more arguable. While the author worked with Louis Perrois on a stylistic classification of the so-called white masks of southwestern Gabon and the Republic of Congo, she seems less informed on the statuary. This is immediately evident from what she writes about Bwiti, one of the most visible contexts in which figure sculpture is still ritually used in southern Gabon. Grand-Dufay never alludes to Ndjobi, whose existence...