This unusual piece is a friction oracle, made by the Kuba people of Gabon and what was once Zaire. It is remarkably deconstructed, showing a low-slung (very short-legged) quadrupedal animal with a long back, an elongated neck, a pointed face and a short, stubby tail. The face is remarkable, being constructed so that the eye and the open mouth are interconnected with a slit. The flanks of the animal are decorated with cross-hatching which confirms the initial identity of the animal: it represents a crocodile. The upper aspect of the animal is polished and very smooth, which reflects a long history of usage in the hands of a “witch doctor” for the telling of fortunes and consultation of spirits.
The Kuba are a large tribe comprised of various smaller entities including the Bushoong, Ngeende, Kete, Lele, Binji, Dengese, Mbuun and Wongo peoples. They are quasi-autonomous within the Kuba polity but are related genetically and artistically. Their social systems are hereditary monarchies headed by the “Mushenge” (Nyim), who is responsible for the spiritual and material wealth of his people; each of the subgroups was represented by an elder who sat on a royal council. The kingdom was founded in the early 17th century by Shyaam a-Mbul a Ngoong-Shyaam who united disparate groups under his authority. The resulting entity became highly productive and exploited trade networks through the area, becoming very wealthy in the process. This led to an increased artistic oeuvre and ever more elaborate royal regalia and statuary. Their religion was based upon a creator god named MBoom, while more immediate concerns were the province of a being named Woot who was involved with more tangible issues; the Kuba are also known as the Children of Woot. While not impacted upon by slavery, their kingdom fell to the Nsapo people in the 19th century, and was eventually subsumed into the Belgian Empire.
Artistically, the Kuba are highly prolific. Their art is often extremely ornate and decorated with cowrie shells and geometric and meandriform linear motifs. Their large wood sculptures have an apotropaic function. Much Kuba art is decorated with Tukula – bright red ground camwood powder (called twool by the Kuba), which has a symbolic significance for the group. In addition to the beautifully-rendered court art such as the Ndop statues – which represent kings – they have a habit of decorating utilitarian objects to such an extent that they have been described as a people who cannot bear to leave a surface without ornament. They are perhaps best known for their boxes (ngedi mu ntey) and palm wine cups.
Their religious system was based partly around divination, using objects – such as this – called Itumbwa, in order to identify Ngesh (malevolent spirits). Various forms are known, although the pieces are usually zoomorphic and sometimes bicephalous – this was believed to represent increased vigilance and awareness. It was used in combination with a small wooden instrument that was moistened with oil and rubbed on the polished back of the animal, its movements and whether or not (or where) it sticks being interpreted as the answers to questions being asked at the time. This tradition has considerable antiquity, and may have been introduced by the Kete people in the 15th of 16th century.
This is a well-used and well-preserved example, and a worthy addition to any serious collection of African art.
Bacquart, J. 2000. The Tribal Arts of Africa. Thames and Hudson, London.
LaGamma, A. (ed.). 2000. Art and Oracle: African Art and Rituals of Divination. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Pemberton, J. 2000. Insight and Artistry in African Divination, Smithsonian Institution Press, London.