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A nation writes its history in words and in images. If it happens that the nation has no written language, then it must devise other ways to hold onto its past. For the Luba people of Zaire (now Congo), history was recorded by means of a complex of codes and symbols that were embedded in royal objects of various sorts. The patterns in these objects had specific meanings -- a map of royal roads, kingly lineage, a rundown of female deities -- and served as memory devices for the people and helped maintain an ongoing tribal identity.

One of the most significant of these objects was a lukasa, or "memory board." This shaped and carved-out piece of wood was topped by a female head in tortoise shape -- the symbol for the Luba founding ancestor. Inside the recessed board, clusters of knobs and studs revealed to those in the know an entire official history of the Luba state. Meanwhile, the origins of such things as local authority and details of family history were consigned to stools, thrones, knives and staffs.

An exhibition exploring the art and culture of these important central African people, "Memory: Luba Art and the Making of History," begins Saturday at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. The show, the first major presentation of Luba art in America, was organized by the Museum of African Art in New York City. On Thursday a lecture/lunch program is offered at the gallery from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. with a lunch by Just Pasta ($20 members, $25 non-members). The event will be repeated on Sept. 6. The exhibition itself continues on view through Oct. 5.

-- Richard Huntington

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