This drinking vessel was carved in the form of a drum, a musical instrument associated with Kuba royalty. The body of the vessel is a hollowed truncated cone. While crisply angled at its bottom, it is softly rounded at the lip. The receptacle portion of the vessel is supported by a base formed by a rounded circular socle and five legs: a central straight leg, and four evenly distributed arched legs on the exterior. A single curved handle spans the side, taking the form of a head (or mask) and neck atop an oversized human hand. The upturned face has half-moon eyes, a nose with a straight bridge and wide nostrils, and a small mouth. The hairline is clearly marked as a wide curve across the forehead and angles at the temples; the neck (or wrist) is a series of stacked rings or ridges. The long fingers of the hand, which faces palm out, were carefully carved to depict the fleshy ridges on the underside of each digit.
The body of the vessel and its base are covered with several distinct varieties of interlace patterns, as well as bands and zig-zags. Some of the interlaces are heightened by incised grids set on the diagonal, others are filled with concentric bands, while still others are left with smooth, unadorned surfaces. Like many utilitarian forms created as prestige objects by Kuba artists, the patterning on this cup imitates in wood the complex woven and embroidered patterns most commonly seen in Kuba textiles
. Many Kuba patterns are named: the pattern on the upper and lower registers of this cup can be identified as the pattern known as nnaam
Established as a confederacy of chiefdoms by the seventeenth century, Kuba society is organized into eighteen distinct subgroups, each of which has an internal political hierarchy. Customized prestige vessels are a visual manifestation of this hierarchy, with especially elaborate examples such as this commissioned by the most elite members of society. Kuba elites—particularly men—used a wide variety of unique vessels to drink palm wine (maan
) a sweetly sour alcoholic beverage made from specially cultivated raffia palm trees (Raphia hookeri
). These works reflect at once the individual carving style of the male master sculptors and the tastes of their patrons. Such vessels frequently feature visual references to power, human forms, or referenced other Kuba art through skeumorphic depictions. The form of this vessel is a skeumorph, as it is an extremely close—though scaled down—version of a Kuba drum known as bukit
. With the exception of the hide covering the upper opening of such instruments, the diminutive vessel is nearly identical to a Kuba drum in the collection of the Met (2013.623
), incorporating an openwork base, a handle with an oversized hand and human figure, and all-over incised geometric patterning. This particular base configuration evoked that also seen on prestige stools belonging to high ranking "eagle-feathered" chiefs. The use of this particular drum form suggest that the owner was not only a titleholder, but also a drummer. (Binkley and Darish, 125) The head and hand motif also implies authority, as a visual representation of the hold that a chief has over the people. (Musée Dapper, 1997) Royal drums were displayed on elevated platforms as a sign of royal authority, while others were played during festive and ritual events such as dances and masquerades. A status symbol, this vessel’s combination of form and pattern references two other important forms of Kuba art—raffia textiles and drums—demonstrating the interconnected nature of Kuba prestige arts. Other similar cups have been attributed to artists from the nearby Wongo peoples (see Berlin Ethnological Museum III C 19764), reflecting the reach of Kuba stylistic influence. Finely carved vessels of this variety fell out of fashion with the increased availability of plastic, metal, or glass substitutes in the twentieth century.
Kristen Windmuller-Luna, 2016
Sylvan C. Coleman and Pam Coleman Memorial Fund Fellow in the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the AmericasFurther Reading
Binkley, David Aaron., and Patricia Darish. Kuba
. Milan: 5 Continents, 2009.
Koloss, Hans-Joachim. Art of Central Africa: Masterpieces from the Berlin Museum Für Völkerkunde
. New York: Abrams, 1990. Réceptacles
. Paris: Musée Dapper, 1997.