Prestige Panel

Kuba peoples, Shoowa group

Not on view

Woven and embroidered textiles, produced in a number of centers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, have long been admired for their aesthetic beauty and technical virtuosity. In their original context, the creation and appreciation of such works link everyday experience with the lavish finery of ceremonial events. European visitors to the region have never failed to comment upon their sophistication and refinement by evoking comparisons with the finest textiles known in the West. One early-eighteenth-century commentator noted: " The fabrics of these regions are truly beautiful…Some of them closely resemble velvet, others are so richly adorned with various decorations and arabesques that it is a wonder that anyone working with leaves…could make such fine and beautiful fabrics, which are every bit as good as silk"

The medium of this amazingly diverse corpus of textiles is the fiber obtained from the raffia-palm leaf, which is transformed through intensive human labor, technical skill, and creative imagination. Although distinct both geographically and chronologically, the kingdoms of the Kongo and Kuba, renowned for the excellence of their textiles, are related through their use of similar techniques of adornment. Historically the product of such labors has been worn as finery by individuals of high social rank and distributed as units of wealth and currency. As precious familial property, such works have been used in dowry payments agreed upon in marital contracts and are lavishly displayed as funerary shrouds that reflect the affluence and importance of both the deceased and his or her extended family.

An important mandate of regional leaders has been to commission innovative works and design motifs emblematic of their individual legacies. In the seventeenth century, the founder of the Kuba dynasty of leadership identified so closely with the patronage and promotion of lavish woven and embroidered textiles that he adopted the term for raffia palm, shyaam, as a name and metaphor for his reign as "Shyaam the Great."

Prestige Panel, Raffia palm fiber, Kuba peoples, Shoowa group

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