Wood, ceramic, raffia; H. 11 in. (27.94 cm)
Gift of Herbert Weiss, 1996 (1996.456)
The broad expanse of open savanna in present-day Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola became a major center of trade between European and African peoples as early as the seventeenth century. The region was intersected by multiple trade routes that connected the Atlantic coast to the Central African interior and facilitated the exchange of European goods for African slaves and forest products such as ivory, rubber, and wax. Chiefs who managed to control this trade became exceptionally wealthy and powerful individuals.
While these rulers generally commissioned luxurious items from indigenous artists to advertise their success and authority, they also incorporated items of European manufacture into their courtly regalia. This Chokwe chief's necklace is an example of a traditional form of prestige item that incorporates a foreign trade commodity. The focal point of the necklace is a beige ceramic disk made in Europe, probably Germany, which was brought to Africa by Portuguese traders in exchange for slaves. European merchants were generally aware of the particular interests of their African trading partners and imported specific types of items to meet their unique demands. With its spiral design, this form was meant to resemble the cross section of a white snail's shell, an important symbol of spirituality and leadership among many Central African cultures. The lightness and delicacy of the "shell" is offset by a thick collar made of basketry woven over a wooden core. The band's dark color and bulky profile was enhanced through the application of black clay, which was rubbed into the interstices of the woven structure. Imported brass furniture tacks, now missing, originally studded the surface. This expensive imported material was integrated into many Chokwe prestige forms, not only to beautify them and increase their value but also to advertise their owners' successful trade relationships with foreign powers.