Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History



  • Figure (Grave Marker), 20th century
    Kenya; Giryama people
    Wood; H. 67 1/4 in. (170.8 cm)
    Gift of Eugene and Harriet Becker, 1993 (1993.522)

    The Giryama people of the Kenyan coast are known for their long-standing tradition of carved wooden mortuary posts. The grave posts, called kikangu, serve a number of functions within Giryama life. In the simplest sense, a kikangu stands as a grave marker. By honoring the power and presence of koma, or ancestor spirits, these grave posts also fulfill an important role as mediators between the world of the living and the ancestral realm. Giryama religious life revolves around this important relationship that strives to harness the constructive powers of koma and avoid any destructive influences.

    The abstract and geometric forms of kikangu serve as a diagrammatic representation of a spirit. The kikangu also serves as a record of the deceased's life and sometimes may even indicate the number of wives or the number of enemies killed in battle by the deceased. Grave posts such as this are schematic, and were not intended to be naturalistic. These simple-looking posts range from six to eight feet in height and eight to ten inches in width. The head portion of the post is usually flat and includes simplified representations of human features such as eyes, a nose, and occasionally a mouth. Buttons or coins are often used to represent the eyes, while the nose and mouth generally take on a rectangular form when featured. Often kikangu have both a frontal and a dorsal face. A thin rectangular neck connects the head to the long rectangular torso. The arms and lower limbs are not clearly delineated on this or most other kikangu. Most grave posts are carved of nzizi wood, an extremely hard wood that is also resistant to insect deterioration. The decorative aspects of Giryama mortuary posts feature a complex and harmonious interweaving of geometric shapes. The interlocking pattern of triangles on the torso of this example may serve as a mark of strength or power. The head features a circular pattern of triangles along the edge, which may symbolize radiating beams from a sunburst. The exact significance of these patterns is not known; they likely have multiple interpretations.

    Giryama burial rituals call for the internment of the deceased a day after death. The day after the burial marks the beginning of the mourning period. It is on this day that a kikangu is erected over the grave of the deceased. If the village moves, the kikangu is repositioned in the new locale. On a second migration, however, the kikangu is not removed. Another post, unlike the first and known as a kibao, is carved and erected instead.

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  • Figure (Grave Marker), 20th century
    Kenya; Giryama people
    Wood; H. 67 1/4 in. (170.8 cm)
    Gift of Eugene and Harriet Becker, 1993 (1993.522)

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