Democratic Republic of Congo; Luba or Shankadi
Wood, beads; H. 6 3/8 in. (16.2 cm)
Gift of Margaret Barton Plass, in Honor of William Fagg, C.M.G., 1981 (1981.399)
The Luba peoples occupy a land of rivers and savanna in the southeast of what is today Democratic Republic of Congo. As early as the seventeenth century, the Luba headed an extensive, centrally organized state structured on the principles of divine kingship and rule by council. The widespread trade networks in the region produced individuals of great wealth and prestige who commissioned fine works of art for personal and political use.
Used by a member of the Luba elite, this diminutive sculpture elevated the head of its resting owner. Its function may appear prosaic but it served an important purpose by protecting the sleeper's elaborate coiffure, itself a work of art requiring some fifty hours to create. Here, the artist has composed a playful visual pun by emphasizing and enlarging the swooping curves of the sculpted figure's own hairstyle, mirroring the equally elaborate hair designs it helped to preserve.
This neckrest is one of a group of less than twenty works attributed to a single master sculptor. Because of the exuberant treatment of the fan-shaped hair arrangement, a typical hairstyle of this region in the nineteenth century, this artist is known as the Master of the Cascade Coiffure. Here, he interprets the human form as a series of acute angles and slender lines, creating volume by framing space with delicate limbs and fins of hair rather than filling it with heavy forms. Opposing forces create rhythms that lend harmony and balance to the figure's asymmetrical pose: the upward thrust of the left knee is answered by the downward push of the right elbow, while the bent right leg and left arm extend outward in opposite directions. Triangular openings created by the arms and legs echo the wedge forms of the complex coiffure design. Finally, the slight twist of the torso adds yet another layer of visual dynamism to this functional sculpture.