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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Portraits of African Leadership: Living Rulers

While images of dynastic ancestry were an important chiefly art form, so were images of living rulers. In some cases, the very act of commissioning a portrait was part of a leader’s assumption of responsibilities and prerogatives. Among the Kuba peoples, for instance, a tradition of royal portraiture known as ndop developed around 1700 and lasted until colonial times (Kuba ndop figure, British Museum, London). During the reign of each Kuba king, a wood sculpture of monumental size was carved that depicted him seated on a throne laden with accoutrements of royal prestige. Together, the assembly of existing ndop sculptures represented the dynasty of Kuba kings, and the addition of the current ruler’s image cemented his place within that line.

Because African approaches to portraiture often substituted idealism for realism, images of rulers carved within a particular stylistic tradition tended to look very much alike. As a result, personal and historical emblems unique to each individual were often employed for purposes of differentiation. The royal subject of an ndop sculpture, for instance, may be identified by his ibol, a royal symbol that was revealed at the moment of his coronation. Portraits that utilized personal and historical motifs to identify those portrayed are also found among the cast brass and carved ivory sculptures of the kingdom of Benin. Obas (kings) and other residents of the court were distinguished from one another through costume and ceremonial paraphernalia as well as by differences in scale: the most important figure in a sculptural group was the largest. However, additional visual emblems were used to represent specific individuals. Two eighteenth-century cast brass objects from the Metropolitan Museum’s collection, an ukhurhe (rattle staff) and an ikegobo, or “altar to the hand,” feature depictions of recognizable individuals. The ukhurhe (1974.5), which was used to invoke a ruler’s presence at court ceremonies, portrays the early eighteenth-century ruler Akenzua I on its finial. Akenzua’s reign was challenged by a rebellious chief. He ultimately subdued this insurrection and his triumphant victory is commemorated on the staff. Akenzua is portrayed literally surmounting his enemy, who is represented here as a bull elephant, a traditional Benin symbol of chiefdom. The two royal leopards flanking him indicate the oba’s ability to limit and control the strength of the chiefs. Sculptures of cast brass were made only at the behest of the king himself, and the oba honored his loyal officials by presenting them with these rare and valuable items. The ikegobo (1991.17.113, 1996.11) was a gift from Akenzua I to Ahenua, his ezomo (military commander), who played a central role in maintaining the unity of the kingdom during this period of turmoil. Ahenua is portrayed on the body of the vessel, battle trophies in hand, surrounded by his warriors and attendants, while Akenzua I is depicted on the lid making offerings to the ancestors to ensure the success of his ezomo‘s campaign.

Other forms of portraiture were metaphoric in nature in that the subject was replaced entirely by sets of images and ideas alluding to his or her unique personal qualities. This type of representation was exemplified by the royal arts of the Fon kingdom of Dahomey, a court in present-day Republic of Benin whose power was at its height in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Important aspects of each king’s character were revealed through a method of oracular inquiry known as fa divination. The ruler’s fa sign, and the myriad phrases, lyrics, and stories associated with it, indicated what events would mark the ruler’s life, when they would occur, and how his family would fare after his death. At court, royal artists rendered the ideas and metaphors associated with the king’s fa sign into visual form by creating personalized items of art and regalia such as silver jewelry, cloth appliqué flags, and metal-covered wood sculptures. An elephant in the Museum’s collection, carved of wood and sheathed in silver, was probably constructed during the reign of King Glele (r. 1858–89) (2002.517.12002.517.2). Glele’s divination sign, abla-lete, includes several phrases with elephant imagery, including “The animal steps on the ground, but elephants step on it with strength,” and “The elephant said, ‘If I put my feet somewhere, one will see my sign. There where the elephant passes in the forest, one knows.'”