This exceptional piece of carving is a wine cup was made by the Wongo, one of several groups under the Kuba people of Gabon and what used to be Zaire. It is one of the best examples we have ever seen. These objects, which were a means of conspicuous consumption in Kuba/Wongo court circles (see below), are often somewhat crude; this piece, however, was commissioned by a wealthy man and carved by a genius. It portrays a standing female with a solid torso, short, sectorial limbs and a very outsized head. The hands are resting almost aggressively on the hips, giving a bold and strident composition. The face is traditional, with coffee-bean eyes, a triangular nose and a pursed mouth that resembles the eyes in construction. The body and face are decorated with bands and stripes of keloid scarifications, and the upper arm is banded with a strip of hatching. The apex of the head is rendered as a inverted-conical coiffure (reminiscent of the Mangbetu) with extremely fine hatching and then horizontal banding at the very lip. There is a queue, rendered as a loop joining the back of the head to the neck. The entire piece has a dark, glossy patina with light surface foxing indicating both considerable age and extensive usage. The extensive scarring makes it propable that this is technically a Wongo cup, wile still being under the aegis of the Kuba (see below)
The Kuba are a large tribe comprised of various smaller entities including the Bushoong, Ngeende, Kete, Lele, Binji, Dengese, Mbuun and Wongo peoples. Their social systems are hereditary monarchies headed by the “Mushenge” (Nyim), who is responsible for the spiritual and material wealth of his people. The kingdom was founded in the early 17th century by a major leader named Shyaam a-Mbul a Ngoong-Shyaam, under whose guidance the polity became highly productive and very wealthy. This led to an increased artistic oeuvre and ever more elaborate royal regalia and statuary.
Kuba 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. Their artwork reflects their kingship system and is often extremely ornate: they have been described as a people who cannot bear to leave a surface without ornament. Their works are usually decorated with cowrie shells, camwood powder (tukula, or twool), and geometric and meandriform linear motifs. Their major works include “ndop” sculptures of deceased kings. They are well-known for their boxes (ngedi mu ntey) and their cups, which are particularly flamboyant, usually cephalomorphic, and which were a standard means of competition among socially ambitious courtiers.
This is an exceptional example of a famous artistic oeuvre, and an important piece of African art.
- (DG.061 (LSO))