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Treasures of the World's Cultures: The British Museum after 250 Years
Mystery and Inspiration: the Allure of African Cultures

Africa is a diverse continent with its many different cultures having distinct artistic traditions and forms. Starting from the later part of the first millennium AD, much of North Africa, formerly part of the classical empires of Ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, embraced Islam. By the second millennium AD, prosperous Muslim communities were becoming established along the East Africa coast, and by the eighteenth century Islam had spread to West Africa. In all of these areas, art forms often focused upon architectural decoration, leatherwork, and textiles.

In the non-Muslim kingdoms of West Africa, certain valuable objects and materials--especially metals--were the prerogative of kings and chiefs, and often considered the tangible symbols of their authority. It was not uncommon for craftsmen to be attached to rulers' courts and in Nigeria, artists attached to the courts of Benin and Ife cast exquisitely detailed bronzes, using a now-lost wax technique.

The carving of wooden figures and weaving of textiles are common throughout Africa, and in the forests and savannahs of central Africa, wood carvers tended to produce decorative items, such as cups, furniture and boxes. The Kuba of the Democratic Republic of Congo are particularly noted for their masks and the finely sculpted figures of their kings. Elsewhere in eastern and southern Africa, there is a more apparent emphasis on bodily decoration and personal ornament, although the warriors of the Masai, Zulu, and Matabele peoples also take pride in their elaborate shields and weapons.

Royal portrait statue

Democratic Republic of Congo, Kuba, late 18th century
H5.0m, W21.0, D22.0 cm
Emil Torday collection
Ethno 1909, 5-13.2
Royal portrait statue

Kuba kings are traditionally commemorated by 'portraits' that were carved to represent principles of kingship and celebrate the reign of individual members of the ruling dynasty. The earliest of these is associated with the founder of the Kuba kingdom, Shyaam aMbul aNgoong, who lived in the early sixteenth century.

Although called 'portraits' these are not likenesses of the individual ruler but rather spirit doubles often produced after the physical death of the individual ruler. They were kept in the royal palace and were used to maintain the spiritual influence of the king when he was on a journey or to incubate in an incoming king the spirit of his royal predecessors. This was done by rubbing the figure with camwood and palm oil to release the royal essence encapsulated in the object.

Each king figure is identified by the emblem which is carved on the plinth. Kings are associated with innovation and invention. Thus a figure of a king associated with iron-working is characterised by the addition of tan icon of an anvil. Here the image is of a drum and is associated with King MishaaPelyeeng aNce, who ruled in the late eighteenth century. It is thus amongst the oldest documented wood sculptures from Africa that survives. The other features of the figure - the hat, sword, belt and armlet - are all standard items of royal regalia which are found on all the king figures.

J Cornet, Art Royal Kuba, (Milan, 1982).

J Mack, Emil Torday and the Art of the Congo, 1900-1909, (London, 1990).