Friction Oracle

Accession Number

Friction Oracle


Artist Nationality
Kuba (Democratic Republic of Congo style)

Object Creation Date
20th century

Medium & Support
wood, metal, glass beads, and cowrie shells

2 15/16 in x 13 3/4 in x 2 1/2 in (7.5 cm x 35 cm x 6.4 cm)

Credit Line
Gift of Dr. James and Vivian Curtis

Label copy
(African Art and the Shape of Time; August 18, 2012-February 3, 2013)
7. Divining figure (itombwa)
Kuba peoples, probably 20th century, wood, metal, glass beads, cowrie shells, fiber, University of Michigan Museum of Art, Gift of Dr. James and Vivian Curtis, 1997/1.358
An itombwa is an instrument of divination, a practice that investigates the connections between past and present events. This one takes the shape of a dog, an intermediary connecting the home, the domain of humans, and the bush, the domain of spirits; it is also a representational model of the universe. A diviner would manipulate this itombwa by vigorously rubbing its concave surface with a special dowel; where friction drags and stops the dowel is where the diviner perceives a locus of connections.

Subject matter
Itombwa are tools used by Kuba ritual specialists to locate the source of problems in the community. By rubbing the figure's back, the diviner learns the answers to questions and can then help develop a solution to the petitioner's specific problem. The itombwa is a cosmogram, a model of the universe. By manipulating the model, the diviner can learn the ultimate causes of different experiences in the world, even when those causes are normally invisible.

Physical Description
Horizontally positioned statue in the shape of an animal. The back of the statue is flattened with a slight concave in the middle. The body is decorated with a carved diamond design consisting of intersecting lines. and the tail has a rectangular shape. There is a metal ring wrapped around the neck in addition to multicolored beads. There is also a piece of fiber attached to the neck of the statue with a small bell-shaped wooden piece attached to the end of the fiber.

Primary Object Classification
Wood and Woodcarving

Additional Object Classification(s)

Collection Area

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carvings (visual works)
divination objects
geometric motifs
protection (maintenance function)

& Author Notes

Web Use Permitted