Zulu peoples

Not on view

The carver of this vessel derived its elegantly tapered neck and swelling base with the form of the torso of a well-fed individual. Additional human features include a pair of wedge-shaped lugs on either side, which appear at one moment as shoulders, at another as breasts, while providing traction during milking. Hollowed using a traditional spearhead or assegai, its cool, moist interior is both a receptacle for the milk around which many pastoral southern African diets are based and a dwelling place for mythical beings and ancestral spirits or “shades.”

The earliest documented amathunga (pl.), used during the reign of Shaka Zulu (1816-1828), were the sole province of the king. In daily mid-morning rituals, royal herdsmen paraded the ithunga overhead, dancing while calling to the cows in a whistle. The king’s milk vessel, of which there was only one at a time, always accompanied him, carried in a special covered basket. As the mining industry and colonialism transformed the political and social structure of southern Africa, Zulu men carried amathunga with them into new labor contexts as emblems of their ethnic identity. The unusually expressionistic raised bands that adorn this work’s exterior may reflect its production and use outside of a purely pastoral context.

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