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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Portraits of African Leadership: Memorials

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 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. In the kingdom of Benin, brass commemorative heads (1979.206.86) were commissioned by each oba (king) 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.