Portraits of African Leadership: Memorials

See works of art
  • Head of an Oba
  • Ancestor Figure (Ekpu)
  • Seated Figure (Tumba)
  • Commemorative Figure (Lefem)
  • Seated Male Figure

Works of Art (6)


Unlike images of ancestral leaders such as Chibinda Ilunga, memorial portraits were created at around the time of the subject’s death. These works honored important persons and were often placed in tombs or on altars where they could serve as points of contact with the spirits of those they represented. Wood or stone figural sculptures called bitumba (sing. tumba) (1996.281; 1978.412.573) were carved by some Kongo peoples of the present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo and placed on graves or in memorial houses dedicated to distinguished members of the community. Elements of their composition such as pose and costume represented the favorable concepts within the Kongo worldview that these individuals exemplified. Within the kingdom of Benin, brass commemorative heads (1979.206.86) were commissioned by each oba in the first years of his reign to honor his immediate predecessor. These stylized depictions of past rulers, along with other artworks associated with their reigns, were placed on altars in the royal palace where they served as conduits through which family members could petition the spirits of their antecedents for help in maintaining the health and prosperity of the kingdom.

Memorial depictions of rulers were sometimes employed to maintain dynastic continuity at times of potential political instability such as funerals and coronations. In what is today western Cameroon, freestanding portrait sculptures called lefem (1978.412.576) were carved just before a ruler’s death. During the funerary ceremonies after his death, the deceased king’s lefem and those of his forebears were displayed in a group as a vivid reflection on the continuity of the lineage’s leadership.

Alexander Ives Bortolot
Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University

October 200


Bortolot, Alexander Ives. “Portraits of African Leadership: Memorials.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/aprt_4/hd_aprt_4.htm (October 2003)

Further Reading

Ben-Amos, Paula Girshick. Art, Innovation, and Politics in Eighteenth-Century Benin. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.

Thompson, Robert Farris, and Joseph Cornet. The Four Moments of the Sun: Kongo Art in Two Worlds. Exhibition catalogue. Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1981.

Additional Essays by Alexander Ives Bortolot