Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Portraits of African Leadership: Royal Ancestors

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At times of political succession and expansion, a leader's association with a dynastic line of rulers was an important affirmation of legitimacy and allegiance. These relationships were often represented visually in the form of imposing and elaborate sculptures representing royal progenitors and culture heroes. The growth of the Luba kingdom during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries created one context for this artistic production. When provincial chiefs allied themselves to the expanding Luba kingdom, the commitment was symbolized by their desire to incorporate themselves into the divine Luba royal dynastic line. These partnerships offered significant economic and political benefits for local chiefs, and they celebrated their newly conceived links to the prestigious Luba rulers through sculptural forms. Chokwe rulers, for instance, asserted their political lineage through the ancestral figure of Chibinda Ilunga, a Luba hunter who married a local princess and introduced Luba principles of governance to the Chokwe and related peoples. Carved wooden depictions of Chibinda, such as one at the Metropolitan Museum created in the nineteenth century by a Chokwe master sculptor (1988.157), honor this union. They present him in all the trappings of Chokwe chiefdom, notably a distinctive form of winged headdress, to illustrate the productive alliance of Luba and Chokwe forms of leadership.


Increased wealth resulting from European trade frequently led to changes in societal power structures. The rise of a new class of leaders often created a demand for artistic statements of chiefly ancestry. In the region southwest of Lake Tanganyika, for instance, an influx of wealth during the middle of the nineteenth century produced a group of elite Tabwa trading families who challenged their society's traditional forms of governance and assumed regional leadership. The new Tabwa leaders legitimized their right to rule by invoking and, when necessary, inventing a chiefly lineage through sculptural representations of royal predecessors. A genre of sculpture depicting ancestors had existed before this time, but as politics changed so did patronage of sculptural traditions, and this kind of art was modified to serve the purposes of the new chiefly clients. Originally small, simple, and personal in nature, these figures grew in size and complexity and acquired a broader social significance. Passed down from one chiefly generation to the next, they acted as documents that recorded and sustained the transfer of dynastic power. A pair of figures representing an ancestral Tabwa royal couple from the Metropolitan Museum's collection are classic examples of this sculptural tradition (1978.412.591; 1978.412.592). Their upright regal bearing, and elegant body decoration associated their owners with valued traits of goodness and perfection.

Alexander Ives Bortolot
Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University