TRIBAL AFRICAN ART

KUBA (BAKUBA) (also see related Lele, Dengese and Pende)

Numbering about 250,000 the Kuba live in the area of central DRC bordered by the Sankuru, Kasai, and Lulua rivers. This is a region of valleys where numerous rivers flow south to north; the hills are covered with brush and the rivers are bordered by forests. Farming, aside from clearing the fields, was women’s work; they cultivate manioc, corn, gourds, bananas, pineapples, and palms. Tobacco was grown by the men. The hunt, a collective enterprise using nets, brought prestige and reinforced the social cohesion between the villagers. To fish the rivers required the participation of the entire village in order to build canoes. Although today most Kuba ethnic groups are organized into independent chiefdoms, they still recognize the authority of the Bushong king.

The art of the Kuba is one of the most highly developed of all African traditions, and significant cultural accomplishments are part of their heritage. Among the best known of Kuba art forms are royal portrait figures, ndop, idealized representations. An ndop may have played a role in the installation of the king, and during his life it is said to have been not only a portrait but also the soul double of the king. Whatever happened to him was believed to happen to it as well. Closely associated with the king’s fertility, the ndop was kept in the woman’s quarters, and was placed next to his wives during childbirth to ensure safe delivery. The kings typically sit facing forward with legs crossed, the left in front of the right; the right hand, with fingers extended, rests on the right knee, and the left hand holds the royal dagger. Geometric patterns cover the stomach and are continued on the back of the figure. The royal statues show the king wearing a rectangular shody hat, they  are mounted on quadrangular pedestals. The sculptures include objects significant to each particular king, identifying his own personal accomplishments. Developing from the court style was a popular style, which utilized geometric forms instead of the well-modeled, full-volume forms of the court figures. Kuba fetishes, emphasizing only essential organs, are highly schematic. The popular style can also be found in the utensils and textiles produced by the Kuba.

Over twenty types of masks are used among the Kuba, with meanings and functions that vary from group to group. Kuba wooden helmet masks are probably the most commonly produced items, popular with the collectors. These striking masks are wonderfully decorated with geometrical surface designs in dazzling contrasts of color, pattern, and texture. Hide, animal hair, fur, beads, cowrie shells, and feathers further ornament the masks, and costumes of bark-cloth, raffia fiber fabric, and beaded elements complete the manifestation of nature spirits, intermediaries between the Supreme Being and the people. Over twenty types of masks are used among the Kuba, with meanings and functions that vary from group to group. One widespread context for masking is initiation. Every several years a group of boys will be inducted into manhood through the initiation which transforms uncircumcised boys into initiated men who possess esoteric knowledge. Funerals are a second important context for masks throughout the Kuba area. A hierarchy of masks appears at funerals even of untitled men, though they are especially important at the funerals of titleholders. Three types of masks have been associated with dances that take place within the royal compound. The first, called Moshambwooy, represents Woot, the founder of the Bushoong clan. The second, known as Nady Amwaash, personifies the wife/sister of Woot. The third mask, called Bwoon, represents a ‘pygmy’. Other masks are collectively known as Isheene Mwalu.   

The Kuba love of form, knowledge of materials, skill in execution, and appreciation of quality are best seen in the number and variety of cups and goblets, mostly for drinking palm wine. There are reports – not confirmed – that these cups might have been used in the poison ordeal. Among the Kuba, as among other African tribes, death was never attributed to natural causes but to malevolent spirits or to witchcraft. The person suspected of using witchcraft was required to drink poison from such a cup. If he vomited up the drink, he was declared innocent. On the other hand, his death proclaimed his guilt and constituted his punishment.

The Kuba metalsmiths worked with copper, iron, and brass, making weapons and tools to be admired as well as used. In some cases, one metal was inlaid with another.

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