Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Kingdoms of the Savanna: The Kuba Kingdom

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In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Central African interior witnessed the florescence of three large-scale, multi-ethnic states. Imported crops and technologies as well as new models of leadership promoted strong, centralized governments that subdued neighboring chiefdoms and regulated trade routes, increasing the wealth and relative stability of the region. Client states, incorporated into these empires via warfare and strategic alliances, acquired the political systems and courtly traditions of their overlords. Art forms and insignia associated with imperial rule spread throughout the region.

The Kuba Kingdom
Nestled in the fertile forest and savanna bordered by the Sankuru, Lulua, and Kasai rivers, the Kuba kingdom was a conglomerate of several smaller principalities of various ethnic origins. Sometime around 1625, an outsider unseated a rival ruler and unified the area's chiefdoms under his leadership. This man was Shyaam a-Mbul a Ngoong-Shyaam "the Great." Kuba oral histories reveal that he was the adopted son of a local queen who left his home to travel to the Pende and Kongo kingdoms in the west. Empowered by mystical knowledge of foreign customs and technologies, Shyaam became the architect of Kuba political, social, and economic life. Advanced techniques of iron production and crops from the Americas such as maize (corn), tobacco, cassava (manioc), and beans were introduced. The government was reorganized around a merit-based title system that dispersed power and promoted loyalty among the aristocracy.

Political stability and the efficient use of natural resources produced wealth that facilitated remarkable artistic invention. Status-conscious Kuba titleholders commissioned local artisans to produce elegant items for display. Objects such as embroidered textiles (1999.522.15), fiber and beaded hats (1974.83.14), and wooden cups (1978.412.541) and containers (1978.412.299a,b) became increasingly ornate and fanciful. The Kuba kings were at the center of this artistic innovation. Each designed elaborate costumes of sumptuous materials and prestigious natural objects, such as leopard skins and eagle feathers, which were worn as part of court ceremony and buried with the ruler upon his death. Around 1700, King Misha mi-Shyaang a-Mbul introduced a new genre of wooden portrait sculpture called ndop. Each ndop figure was carved during an individual king's reign and related to a series of historical representations of the line of Kuba leadership that was kept at court. Monumental in size, they are idealized portraits depicting each Kuba king enthroned at the height of his health and power. The identity of each ruler is communicated by an attribute depicted in front of him. This is the ruler's ibol, a personal symbol revealed at the moment of his coronation. The ndop figure shown here represents Shyaam a-Mbul a Ngoong, whose ibol is a lele board. Lele, also known as mankala, is a game of strategy that demands intelligence, skill, and foresight, a fitting symbol for this ingenious ruler.

At the Kuba court, appreciation of artistic innovation was balanced by reverence for tradition and continuity, and the king's treasury included heirlooms passed from one royal generation to the next. One of the most significant of these was a red basket decorated with cowries and beads, identified as the basket of knowledge from the Kuba origin myth. In that story, the first man, Woot, stole this basket from the creator god Mbwoom but then lost it. The basket was later found by a Pygmy, who gave it to the first Kuba ruler.

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

Ndop Figure of King Shyaam aMbul a Ngoong, late 18th century
Wood; H. 21 1/2 in. (54.6 cm) (1909.1210.1)
British Museum, London