Standing male figure (mbulenga)

late 19th–early 20th century

Dallas Museum of Art

Dallas Museum of Art

Small sculpted figures holding a vessel in one hand are called mbulenga, which means "for beauty, for good luck" in the Lulua language, and were believed to protect infants. The figure's reddish brown patina is the result of being coated with ngula (red powder from the camwood tree mixed with water). Its power comes from the contents of the vessel, which included the hair of a female albino (considered a blessing by the Lulua), the bark of a sacred tree (mutshi muabi), and the red feathers from the tail of a gray parrot.

The sculptor carved this figure in a naturalistic style, carefully depicting details of the hairstyle, clothing, ornamentation, and scarification that were in fashion. Having one's body decorated with scarification made an individual bwimpe-that is, beautiful, not only physically but morally as well. Scarification is produced by making cuts in the skin, which must heal properly to leave smooth and shiny raised scars. An individual whose skin did not heal properly was not considered to be a beautiful and moral person. To give themselves a healthy glow, individuals applied a mixture of red earth, oil, and kaolin to their bodies.(12)

The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art, cat. 47, pp. 152-153.


12. Timmermans, Paul. “Essai des typologie de la sculpture des Bena Luluwa du Kasai.” Africa-Tervuren 12, no. 1 (1966): 17–27. pp. 17-18.

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  • Title: Standing male figure (mbulenga)
  • Date Created: late 19th–early 20th century
  • Physical Dimensions: Overall: 7 1/2 x 1 3/8 x 1 1/2 in. (19.05 x 3.493 x 3.81 cm)
  • Type: Sculpture
  • External Link: https://www.dma.org/object/artwork/4051464/
  • Medium: Wood and camwood patination
  • culture: Lulua peoples
  • Credit Line: Dallas Museum of Art, The Clark and Frances Stillman Collection of Congo Sculpture, gift of Eugene and Margaret McDermott