Wednesday, February 26, 2014

KUBA PEOPLE: THE MOST ARTISTIC AND HIGHLY TECHNOLOGICAL INDIGENOUS CLOTH-MAKERS OF EAST AFRICA

Kuba (also called Bakuba)  people are agriculturalist and a cluster of Bushong-speaking ethnic groups of the larger Bantu ethnicity living in the southeastern Democratic Republic of Congo between the Kasai and Sankuru rivers east of their confluence.

                           Kuba people Democratic Republic of Congo. friendsofafricaaz.org

The Kuba are surrounded by other tribes such as the Suku, Yaka, and Pende (Cole, 381).  Kuba who are well-known for their advance ritualistic sculptures and masks is composed of eighteen groups located in the southern most part of the Great Equatorial Forest; which is on the boarder of the tropical forest and the open Savannah.
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Wives of Kuba Nyim (ruler) Kot a-Mbweeky III, Mushenge, Congo (Democratic Republic)

Apart from the Bushong speaking principalities, other Kuba people includes the Kete, Coofa, Mbeengi, and the Cwa Pygmies. The Kuba people always refer to themselves as the Bakuba which translates to “people of the throwing knife” (Washburn , 17).

                                  Artistic Kuba people of DRC exhibiting their indigenous arts

When the kingdom of tribes was first brought together, the people were ruled by the Bushong people from the hill country of the central Congo (Caraway);these people have contributed most of the rulers to the Kuba.  Whenever a king dies, the capital is moved to the location of the new King (Washburn , 19).  Intertribal trading occurred often because the Kuba were such a powerful empire (Meurant , 121).  Supernatural powers are the basis for the beliefs; spells, witchcraft, and channels between the living and the dead are some of these powers.  The king is the chief of the sorcerer’s and bridges the boundary between the natural and the supernatural (Meurant , 122).
Kuba  King (nyim) Kok Mabiintsh III in his artistic and ritual traditional regalia

In the West, very little is known about the Kuba Kingdom, however its whimsical sculptures and textiles featuring distinctive geometric patterns are famous throughout the world. Modern Cubism, which derived its name from the word, “Kuba,” was highly influenced by Kuba arts, eluded to in works by Cubist master artists including Picasso and Matisse. Due to their rarity in the West, Royal Kuba textiles and artifacts are highly sought by western collectors and occupy permanent exhibition halls in prominent art museums in New York, London, Brussels and Paris.
                                  Kuba artistic necklace of the king (nyim)
Language
Kuba people speak Bushong (Bushoong, Bushongo, Busoong, Shongo, Ganga, Kuba, Mbale, Bamongo, Mongo) language which belongs to Bantu language group of the Kasai region of Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Dialects are said to be Djembe, Ngende, Ngombe (Ngombia), Ngongo, Pianga (Panga, Tsobwa, Shobwa, Shoba). Pianga (Shuwa) is a distinct language, in the Tetela group.
The Bushong have a patron–client relationship with the Kasai Twa.
                                         Men of Kuba tribe in DR Congo
History
Kuba are part of the people that came to the Great Lake areas via the great Bantu migration from West Africa. The original Kuba migrated during the 16th century from the north to reach their current location at the Sankuru river. When they arrived, however, they found that the Twa already lived there. The Twa were eventually absorbed into the Kuba Kingdom, but retained some independent cultural characteristics. The height of the Kingdom was during the mid-19th century. 
Kuba girls showing their tribal beautification marks

Europeans first reached the area in 1884, but the Kuba, being relatively isolated, were not as affected by the slave trade as many of the other peoples in the area. The Nsapo invaded during the late 19th century, and the Kingdom was broken up to a large extent.
Nineteen different ethnic groups including the Bushoong, Ngeende, Kel, Pyaang, Bulaang, Bieeng, Ilebo, Idiing, Kaam, Ngoombe Kayuweeng, Shoowa, Bokila, Maluk, and Ngongo formed the kingdom, which still exists and is presided over by the nyim, or king. The King of Kuba is always Bushoong. Each of the ethnic groups has a representative in residence at the Bushoong court.
Kuba girl showing her back beautification marks

KUBA KINGDOM
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Central African interior witnessed the florescence of three large-scale, multi-ethnic states. Imported crops and technologies as well as new models of leadership promoted strong, centralized governments that subdued neighboring chiefdoms and regulated trade routes, increasing the wealth and relative stability of the region. Client states, incorporated into these empires via warfare and strategic alliances, acquired the political systems and courtly traditions of their overlords. Art forms and insignia associated with imperial rule spread throughout the region.
Nyim Kot aPe was the famous king who sold all the Kuba artwork to the Hungarians
Kuba Nyim Kot aPe [Kwete Peshanga Kena],(1902 - 1916)

Nestled in the fertile forest and savanna bordered by the Sankuru, Lulua, and Kasai rivers, the Kuba kingdom was a conglomerate of several smaller principalities of various ethnic origins. Sometime around 1625, an outsider unseated a rival ruler and unified the area's chiefdoms under his leadership. This man was Shyaam a-Mbul a Ngoong-Shyaam "the Great." Kuba oral histories reveal that he was the adopted son of a local queen who left his home to travel to the Pende and Kongo kingdoms in the west.
 Bakuba man and his wives

 Empowered by mystical knowledge of foreign customs and technologies, Shyaam became the architect of Kuba political, social, and economic life. Advanced techniques of iron production and crops from the Americas such as maize (corn), tobacco, cassava (manioc), and beans were introduced. The government was reorganized around a merit-based title system that dispersed power and promoted loyalty among the aristocracy.
Kuba Nyim Mbop aMabiinc maKyeen[Bope Mobinji Kena],(1939 - Sep 1969). Circa 1947


The first explorer to discover the existence of the Kuba people and enter their kingdom was William Sheppard, a black American Presbyterian, in 1892.  German explorers were the next to visit this kingdom between 1907-1909; they have gathered the most complete ethnographic history to date. 
“A short journey inland”. Sheppard with his young son, Congolese children and adults. Sheppard made many trips to proselytize the Christian faith and inform the Congolese why the Presbyterian Congo Mission was in the Kasai.

 “A short journey inland”. Sheppard with his young son, Congolese children and adults. Sheppard made many trips to proselytize the Christian faith and inform the Congolese why the Presbyterian Congo Mission was in the Kasai.(http://www.cairn.info/revue-afrique-et-histoire-2005-2-page-73.htm)

Their studies included that of the social, political, economic, and religious aspects of the Kuba culture (Washburn , 21).  After the Kuba people were colonized, the art form began to change, it became less naturalistic and it began to disappear.  Wood engravings began to match the new art forms that were influenced by the European settlers.  More abstract art was being made to satisfy the European occupiers.  Basketwork was no longer created like all of the other surrounding tribes; instead, they began to create baskets and containers like those of their European counterparts (Meurant , 116).
The weakened Kingdom never recovered, and it was fragmented into chiefdoms once again by the time of the area became a Belgian colony.
The current reigning monarch, Kot-a-Mbweeky III, has been on the throne since 1969.
List of Kuba Kings
Nyimi Kot a-Mbweeky III is wearing the same attire depicted in Ndop statues. If you look closely you can see the board extension on top of his head. Most of Kuba art is made up raffia fibers ceramic glass beads and cowries. This photograph was taken by Elisofon in early 1970 

Shyaam aMbul aNgoong [Shamba Bolongongo], (1600)--centralized the kingdom
Kot aMbul [Kata Mbula],(1776 - 1810)
Miko miMbul [Mikope Mbula],(1810 - 1840)
Mbop aMabiinc maMbul [Bope Mobinji],(1840 - 1885)
Miko aMabiinc maMbul [Mikope Mobinji],(1885 - 1890)
Miko aMabiinc maMbul [Mikope Mobinji],(1885 - 1890)
Kot aMbweeky aMileng [Koto Mboke],(1890 - 1896)
Misha aPelyeeng [Mishanga Pelenge],(1896 - 1900)
Miko aPelyeeng [Mikope Pelenge], (1900- ? )
Mbop Pelyeeng II [Bope Pelenge], (1900- ? )
Kuba Nyim Mbop aMabiinc maKyeen[Bope Mobinji Kena],(1939 - Sep 1969). Circa 1947

[Mingashanga Bake], (1900 - ? )
Kot aKyeen [Kwete Kena], (1900 - ? )
Mbop aKyeen [Bope Kena], (1900 - 1901)
Miko miKyeen [Mikope Kena], (1901 - 1902)
Kot aPe [Kwete Peshanga Kena],(1902 - 1916)
Mbop aMabiinc maMbweeky [Bope Mobinji Boke],(1916 - 1919)
Nyim Kot Mabiinc (ruled 1919-1939), the
paralyzed king of the Kuba, Belgian Congo

Kot aMabiinc maKyeen[Kwete Mobinji Kena],(1919 - 1939)
Mbop aMabiinc maKyeen[Bope Mobinji Kena],(1939 - Sep 1969)
Kot aMbweeky aShyaang [Kwete Mboke] ,(Sep 1969 - ? )
Bope Mabinshe, King of Bakuba Tribe, Sitting with Two of His Sons by One or More of His 800 Wives

Kuba Settlement (Architecture/housing)
Palace Architecture: The Kuba made sure that all of their architecture was developed in proportions that were emphasized by horizontal lines.  Some of the most recognized architecture within the Kuba kingdom lies in the capital city of Nsheng; this city was designed with a very precise layout in mind that looked back upon the importance of the horizontal line (Vasina , 223).  Some of the most recognized architecture within the Kuba kingdom is found in the capital city of Nsheng; this city was laid out with a very precise layout in mind.  One main axis defines most of the important social interactions that occur within the city; this happens on the path between the yoot, king’s residence, and the dweengy, the wives’ residence.  This plan shows and describes special places within Nsheng such as the steps of a king’s enthronement as well as a place to recognize all of the children that have died (Cole, 385). 
                               Kuba dance. Cedric Kalonji

Typical Architecture: All of the buildings are rectangular and have pitched roofs; the size and patterns on the exterior of these buildings determines the occupant and their rank in society (Cole , 385). As the buildings were laid out within the city, they were shifted to block the views of plazas so there would be more privacy in the spaces, the heights of buildings would also change to alter the feel of the spaces (Vasina , 223).  The exterior ornamentations are composed of lines and pattern that create intricate geometric patterns similar to those often seen on Kuba textiles.  Walls are created with palm ribs that are then tied together with vines that create the patterns; more detailed patterns are usually separated by simple patterns.  The pattern that represents royalty is named mbul bwiin; it is “a pattern in which two angles enclose a small diamond shape, the module separated form repeats by V-shapes” (Cole , 385). 
Building Details: Many Kuba buildings began as one room with a simple rectangular shape; in 1892, buildings were beginning to have more rooms and some had up to three.  The partitions were floor to ceiling and were just as elaborate as the exterior walls.  This became very difficult to deal with because it was much harder to plait, stitch, and sew the walls together (Vasina , 223).  As the buildings began to grow, the people looked more into decorations and began to carve doorposts and bed frames as well as enlarge door frames and invent sliding doors which took the place of rolled up rugs that previously covered doorways.  Less complex building forms can be found in the rural areas and small tribal towns while more complex and larger buildings can be found in the capital of Nsheng (Vasina , 224).
Kuba woman and her kids

Economy
 Kuba people engage in farming, hunting and fishing. Both women and men are involved in farming.  The women work on the plains by both planting and gathering; when they finish their work in the fields, they help the men in the forests. Kuba cultivate corn (maize), cassava, millet, peanuts (groundnuts), and beans as staples. They grow raffia and oil palms, raise corn as a cash crop, and hunt and fish.
.  The society’s diet is mostly composed of vegetables.  Meat is only eaten in the dry season because the men are able to hunt without the responsibilities of farming.  Men trap animals in groups; trapping takes place in the brush.  Fishers use both fixed and flying nets; their fishing status is determined by the danger in the water.  Fish ponds are created and harvested by the women twice a year while streams are also used to gather small fish and mollusks (Meurant , 122).  Because the tribe is located between three vast river systems, the Sankuru, Kasai, and Lulua, fishing is one of the ways that the Kuba people to build their economy (Cole , 381).
 They have kept aloof from modern life, and few have emigrated or engage in European-style occupations. 
                              Kuba woman performing traditional dance

Political System 
Kuba society is matrilineal. The Queen Mother empowers the nyim (nyimi) or king. His power is absolute. The nyim heads the Kuba Kingdom. The nyim is considered divine. He is lawmaker, warrior, and spirit medium. The government was organized around a merit system that dispensed title and authority among the aristocracy. This solidified loyalty to the kingdom. Individual polities had autonomy within the empire but were required to pay tribute to the Bushoong royal court.
Nyimi Kot a-Mbweeky III is wearing the same attire depicted in Ndop statues. If you look closely you can see the board extension on top of his head. Most of Kuba art is made up raffia fibers ceramic glass beads and cowries. This photograph was taken by Elisofon in early 1970 

Kuba religion 
The Kuba believed in Bumba the Sky Father who spewed out the sun, moon, stars, and planets. He also created life with the Earth Mother. However these were somewhat distant deities, and the Kuba placed more immediate concern in a supernatural being named Woot, who named the animals and other things. Woot was the first human and bringer of civilization. The Kuba are sometimes known as the "Children of Woot.
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   Kuba elders and warriors dressed for the state visit of the Nyim

Success during hunting is recognized as a gift from the gods. It is not incidental that diviners often employ carved wooden hunting dogs as rubbing oracles in order to arrive at their knowledge. Dogs are seen throughout the region as responsible for delivering the will of the god, whether it be through hunting or through the diviner.
Kuba secret cult devotee wearing a mask

Religious Ceremonies: Kuba religion was focused on the King and all of the ceremonies and royal symbols show religious importance.  Kings are very spiritual and they draw all of the Kuba tribes together (Leuchak, 19).  The king is called ngesh or the nature spirit, he is always surrounded by his wives and servants. 
Ceremonial Ikula Knife - Kuba People - D.R. Congo
The ceremonial knife was introduced by an early Kuba king as a peaceful replacement for a more warlike throwing knife. The hilt is exquisitely decorated by inlaying thousands of wire bits into the wood.
From the Stanley Yalkowsky, esq collection NYC.
Knives, daggers and swords from the Kuba people are used as prestige items. Historical documents indicate that quantities of them were brought to the Congo by Portuguese and Dutch traders beginning around the 16th century. Many daggers were then forged by Congolese blacksmiths to emulate foreign examples. They were reserved for nobles and used for important ceremonial occasions. 

 The mwaaddy or oldest son is enlightened of all the knowledge, stories, and rules by the highest ranked woman in court.  Seven creation stories are present within the Kuba culture; most believe in one or two gods possessing the nature spirit.  Each village has a ngesh and a woman diviner communicates to the people through dreams.  She then tells the community how they can make up for the mistakes that they have made (Leuchak, 19).  Burial ceremonies begin by dressing the body in many layers of different textiles, mostly composed of small squares of embroidered and raffia cloth. 

 While the funeral is occurring, the body is prepared for viewing by wrapping the textiles around the body; when this part of the ceremony is over, the body is placed in a large well decorated coffin made with a bamboo frame covered by decorated mats.  The shape of the coffin sometimes represents the form of the typical Kuba house with a pitched roof. 
                       Kuba titleholders

 Items are then placed into the grave after the body is lowered; these may include drinking cups, textiles, costume decorations, and items that would be needed in the world of the dead (Cole ,389).  If a person was good, they become a ghost in the spirit world before they are reincarnated or reborn.  The bad people must stay in limbo for eternity.  The only way that problems can arise between the spirits and living is through witchcraft and sorcery (Leuchak, 21).
Ceremonial hat Kuba people DR Congo 20th century, Colonial period Raffia, glass beads, copper, cowrie shells, barkcloth 5 1/2" high x 6 1/2" diameter ( 14 x 16.5 cm)

Kuba Culture
Arts for Rulers: The Kuba’s sacred kingship and art was encouraged by the rulers and members of the court; artists were honored.  Memorial pieces were completed which were not the work of everyday people and were seen as respected objects (Caraway).  Each king is presented with a pattern that is drawn onto their drum when they come into office.  Some kings create their own patterns while others allow the person sewing the pattern to design it (Washburn , 24).                                                      
Kuba king
                                   

Clothing: The king and other royal parliament members have a very prestigious style of dress that distinguishes the members ranking; the king holds objects that are very important within the Kuba society.  The different pieces of clothing show the role that the king is playing at that time and show how sacred the role of the king is to their society. 
 The state dress is called bwaantshy and is usually made of skins, cowries, and patterned mats which ensures that the king never touches the unsacred ground.  This is worn on state occasions and when the king dies, he is buried in it.  One of the most important parts of the outfit is the raffia cloth tunic covered in cowries and beads.  The belt that wraps around the king’s waist is over thirteen feet long by eight inches wide and is covered in beads and cowries.  Not only do beaded cloths cover the king’s body, but so do leopard skin bags and metal ornaments.  Kings hold the sword of office in their right hand and a lance in their left; because the king is covered in cowries, the Kuba are reminded that he is a descendant of Woot (Cole , 383).
Royal Kuba costume

Ndop: Ndop, or royal portrait sculptures are normally carved out of wood and are the most familiar form of Kuba art.  Each ndop figure is seated on a rectangular base which has intricate carvings; the patterns and intricacy of detail show that the ruler has a very high ranking within society.  A base is used because the King must sit higher than his counterparts and draw more attention to himself.  When a man becomes king, he is given a “sword of office,” which is held in the left hand of each ndop figure.  In this figure of Shyaam aMbul a-Ngoong, the ndop has a sash around his waist as well as crossed belts on his chest, and arm bands; scarification patterns can be seen on the figure’s face.  The protruding rectangular crown that caps the figure is called a shody and only kings and regents are allowed to wear these (Cole , 383).
Kuba sitting in state

A ndop is made whenever a new king is invested with office; it is supposed to be an exact replication of the king and is a soul double.  After the figure is carved, it is rubbed with camwood and palm oil to imply a reddish color.  This was believed to ensure the fertility of the king and was kept near the wives, especially during childbirth.  If the ndop became damaged at any point in time, it was to be replaced with an exact copy.  At the death of the king, the ndop is brought to the new king’s initiation ceremony; this passes all of the prior king’s power to the new king.  Once this ceremony ends, the figure is placed near the throne of the deceased king which is in a room near his grave (Cole, 384).
African Flute Hunter Whistle Wood Figure Musical Instrument Kuba Dr Congo 

Kuba Mask
Mask History
The mask was created as a helmet used in initiation ceremonies; the ceremonies include those relating to the founding and creation of the Kuba kingdom as well as the ruling family.  The mask to the left, found in the MFA in Boston, MA, looks into the story of Mboom who was the brother of the founder, Mwaash aMbooy, of the Kuba kingdom who lusted for his brother’s wife.  The other possibility of interpretation for this mask is that it holds nature spirits, commoners, or Mbuti (who are forest dwellers) (MFA gallery label).
A Kuba man dressed in an elaborate ceremonial costume and mask for a dance. The mask represents a deity, Ngady Amwaash.

Mwaash aMbooy: The Mboom mask is said to be the oldest mask with the Mwaash aMbooy mask shortly following.  The Mwaash aMbooy is made of wood, elephant hide, and raffia cloth; this mask represents the King.  Masks were first thought to have been worn in the time of Queen Labaam whose name and ideas suggested carving during her reign.  Following traditions allows the masks to be found in the Age of Chiefs; a ncok song is known that speaks of a bwoom mask during this age.  The song also mentioned how the masks needed decorations added so this was the time where cowries and beads were added to the surfaces of these masks (Vasina , 216).
Kuba Mask (Mukenga), Late 19th/mid-20th century
Wood, glass beads, cowrie shells, feathers, raffia, fur, fabric, thread, and bells
57.5 x 24.1 x 20.3 cm (22 5/8 x 9 1/2 x 8 in.)
Laura T. Magnuson Fund, 1982.1504
(Mukenga masks like this one are worn at funerals of influential, titled men in the northern part of the Kuba kingdom. The mask's form and materials combine symbols associated with status and leadership. Its surface is comprised of raffia cloth upon which glass beads, cowrie shells, raffia fibers, and animal fur are attached. The carefully arranged cowrie shells, once prized as currency, signal wealth and status. The beard-like ruff of the large and dangerous colobus monkey refers to powers of the forest. A prominent trunk projecting upward and over the front of the mask represents the elephant, the supreme symbol of leadership.
Formed in the seventeenth century, the Kuba Kingdom unites an ethnically diverse population across the Western Kasai region of today’s Democratic Republic of the Congo. This mask, called mukenga, is a regional variant of a Kuba royal mask that is made only in the northern part of the kingdom. The mask’s form and lavish embellishment are associated with wealth and status. Cowrie shells and glass beads, once highly valued imports, cover much of its surface. A stylized elephant trunk and tusks rise from the top, evoking the powerful animal and the wealth accrued by the Kuba in the nineteenth century through control of the ivory trade. The tuft of red parrot feathers that is suspended from the tip of the trunk and the spotted cat fur on the mask’s face are insignias of rank.
During the funerals of titled aristocrats, a member of the men’s initiation society may dance wearing the mukenga mask and an elaborate costume that includes many layers of woven raffia skirts and cowrie- and bead-laden belts, gloves, bracelets, and anklets. The deceased is laid out in identical attire, underscoring the association between the spirit, which is manifested through the performance of the mask, and the realm of the ancestors.
— Entry, Essential Guide, 2009, p. 13.)


Mask Designs: The surfaces of the masks are decorated with geometric designs made with different colors, patterns, and textures.  Most commonly fur, animal hide, metal, and feathers were used as the base material before being covered with beads and other decorative elements.  There are many types of masks that are commonly worn in the Kuba culture; in the capital of Nsheng, masks cannot be worn without the permission of the King.  Three important masquerades in Nsheng include mwashamboy, bwoom, and ngady a mwash.

Mwashamboy (kneeling) and Bwoom (standing) maskers in a royal ceremony among the Kuba, Democratic Republic of Congo, late 20th century.

During the mwashamboy, the actor wears a mask made of leopard skin with wooden eyes, nose, ears, and mouth attached.  Shells and cowries are added for detail along with an animal hair beard; a large headdress is also included to signify the one worn by the king and give more importance to the mask and its wearer.  Everyone refers to this “as the king’s mask” even though he never wears it, only a man of his choice is allowed to wear it.  Because there are not any eye holes in this mask, the dance is very slow and well choreographed (Cole , 389).
Kuba Ngaady A Mwaash Mask

Bwoom Mask: Ngesh is represented by the oldest known mask, the bwoom mask.  The style is like that of the middle Kasai and it could be much older than those created during the Age of Chiefs (Vasina , 216).  This mask is a carved wooded helmet that is given a very wide forehead and sunken cheeks that are annunciated by patterns or hatching and beads.  
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                Bwoom mask

Copper covers the mouth of the mask which is then outlined with red and white beads; the beads used are imported and the cowries are also bought from other tribes.  Black beads are used to separate the forehead into different sectors and multicolored beads are used to bring attention to other aspects of the face such as the nose and chin.  The person wearing the mask looks out through the nostril holes because there are not any eye holes present; the mask is supposed to give the feeling of being blind.  This mask represents the brother of Woot but tends to stand for the commoners in society as well as the lower ranked members of the court (Cole , 390).  Some masks similar to the bwoom mask include the buffalo mask, ram mask, and initiation masks such as nnup, kalyengl, ishyeen imaulul, and ngady mwaash ambooy (Vasina , 216).

                                         Kuba king
Ngady a Mwash Mask :A ngady a mwash mask is much more intricate with many different colored beads, fabric pieces, shells, and surface patterns.  This mask is given eye holes so the wearer is able to see what is going on while they perform before the Kuba tribal community.  In this example, beads descend from the nose and pass all the way down over the mouth.  The triangles represent domesticity and the different shades of barkcloth to remind people of their ancestors.  Lines passing across the cheeks of ngady a mwash, Woot’s sister and wife, represent tears of suffering and mourning.  The fact the mask represents a woman can be determined when watching the graceful choreographed movements of the man representing Woot’s sister and wife (Cole , 391). 
Ceremonies: The most common uses of masks include initiation ceremonies and funerals.  Initiation ceremonies usually entail the circumcision of boys and their acceptance into manhood; both female and male figures are represented by masks in the ceremony even though only men perform (Cole , 391).  The Nyeeng mask, a type of helmet mask, is associated with the boys’ initiation and is worn by Shyaam during these ceremonies (Vasina , 216).  Funerary masks are not only used for title holders in society, but for non recognized members of society as well (Cole , 391).  Regional differences can be spotted in the bwoom masks from the eastern and central tribes.  During the 18th century, most were carved out of a very light wood; the trunk of the tree was used because it was over one meter in diameter so it was the perfect size for a mask (Vasina , 216).
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Kuba Ngady Amwaash masked dancer, Mushenge, Congo

Kuba Textiles
Patterning and Barkcloth
Geometric patterns found on textiles can be found in many different aspects of society and have a certain meaning and importance to the Kuba people.  When textiles are embroidered, the status of the wearer is that of royalty because of the extra effort that is put into the product (Meurant, 115). 
     
Kuba woman weaving shoowa cloth. Kuba cloth or Kuba Shoowa fabric is made by the Shoowa clan of the Kuba and related peoples in the Democratic Republic of the Congo - formerly Zaire. The fabric was made from a very fine fibre found inside young palm trees leafs. Leafs were dried in the sun, then torn into pieces approximately 2 mm wide which we call raffia. The fine leaf fibers were then woven on a loom.
 In earlier times, cloths were used as currency or offered as gifts. Value was determined by the complexity of the work undertaken. Long cloths as this one on offer, are heavy and were highly prized.  Individual items such as these would take several months, or even a year to produce.

 The levels of detail and the pattern determine the status of the person within society.  Fabric is created from the inner bark of local trees that is beaten after being removed (Cole , 387).  Barkcloth is made by sewing small pieces together and only the more prestigious people wear clothes made of this fabric type.  The skirt seen here is made of barkcloth and has a border of raffia textile and some pieces of fabric imported from Europe.  Even though this design looks very simple from far away, one notices the amount of effort put into the design of this cloth that is actually made of small triangles sewed together to form diamonds, both natural and dark colors are used (Cole , 388).  
Textiles and Ranking in Society: The patterns not only represent economic and social status but ethnic unity and religion as well (Cole, 388).  The Kuba continue to produce all of the different patterns even though these no longer represent the power of the people.  The aesthetic does however, show a person’s ranking within the society (Washburn , 20). 

Raffia Cloth: The weaving of Raffia cloth originated in the Kingdom of the Kongo, near the entrance of the mouth of Zaire into the Atlantic Ocean.  The Kuba began to use this style in the 17th and 18th centuries (Washburn , 21).  Raffia cloth is common because the Kuba men cultivate palm trees and then prepare the fronds, which are the outer layers of leaves (Cole , 388).  
Raffia Cloth; Kuba people; plain weave and appliqué, early 20th century

Men then weave the white fibers on a diagonal loom to create two foot by two foot rectangular squares; when the raffia dries, it becomes light tan in color (Washburn , 23).  When the textiles are completed, both men and women add decoration before wearing their skirts; these skirts, which are worn wrapped many times around the torso, can reach a length of nine feet or even reach to twenty feet (Cole, 388).  The men provide a more natural effect to textiles while the women create the rectilinear and geometric expressions that define the cloth (Meurant , 115). 
Kuba people, Dem. Rep. Congo, mid-20th cent. Premium Quality Raffia cloth panel flat-weave and cut-pile embroidery, natural dyes (22" x 24")

 Women add the geometric designs by either embroidery or plush motifs; plush motifs are decorations separated or outlined by parallel lines (Washburn , 23).  Sudden changes in pattern are common to break up the surface; these could occur in line thicknesses or the elements represented.  Raffia cloth has always been an important item in the Kuba society, it was used as currency and in legal settlements and marriage contracts (Cole , 389).  When these squares were used as currency, people referred to them as mbal or bambala which translates as people of the cloth (Washburn , 20).  Ceremonies such as court and funeral always used raffia cloth; this cloth is still remembered for its importance throughout history (Cole , 389).
African Textile Kuba Raffia Cloth Currency Kasaai Butala Dr Congo Zaire

Pattern Naming: The Kuba people have over two hundred named patterns and it is very difficult to study all of the origins of the patterns and production techniques.  Each pattern is given a name; however, some patterns have different names depending on the tribe spoken to and the popularity of the design.  There are also different names when other mediums are used (Washburn , 24).  
Prestige Panel, Cut-pile Velvet (also known as Kaasai)
Kuba People, Democratic Republic of Congo, 20th or 21st century

When a pattern is common among a majority of the tribes, the same name is usually given by every tribe.  The Bushong patterns are different from the other Kuba designs because regular patterns are used.  This regularity gives more royal power and it shows individual characteristics that help to differentiate the Bushong from other tribes (Washburn , 25).  
The following list is composed of pattern names and visual examples of these types.
Sample Patterns
Twisted Patterns

Nama-vine
Nynga-smoke                                                                                          Washburn, Dorothy.  58
Emphasis on Color
Mamanye-emphasized bent lines 
Mikobi Ngoma-twisted bordering lines 
Mabintshi Buina-bent lines facing each other
There are three different categories to place these textiles.  The first category is named when the pattern names honor the founders or creators of the patter (Washburn , 59).  An example of a common name is Woto, this was the name given to all of the children of the water, five variations of this name were found by Washburn (Washburn , 61).  The second occurs when the pattern name tells of the significant part of objects.  Some words that are commonly used are vine and king’s palace.  Thirdly is when the pattern name describes the activity of the object.  In this category, people focus more on the actions than the whole picture which tends to give more life to the idea behind the pattern (Washburn , 65).
Woto
Woto Bukala-“just Woto” 
Woto Nene-“great Woto”
Woto BuemBuem-“standing on one leg”  


Kuba Carvings
Storage Vessels
Kuba people did not begin carving intricate items until the time of the first capital, Nsheng, less detailed objects carved before that time were found in the smaller communities.  When looking at objects, it is sometimes difficult to determine if it was a piece of pottery or a wood carving.  Everyday objects were carved in detail such as hooks carved as little men or plates, cups, and storage boxes. 
Anthropomorphic vessel - Kuba People - Congo

 Aesthetic parameters were placed on certain types of objects but the artist was allowed to show their creativity within the set boundaries.  Older collections are much more diverse than current collections because of the tourist trade and the tendency to standardize the objects for the visitors (Vasina , 217).
Kuba vessel

Wooden Cup: The cup is carved out of wood and its form has intricate details wrapping the surface of the cup.  Only people with titles in the renowned court structure are allowed to receive these special cups.  The narrow face is pronounced by a copper strip.  
Anthropomorphic Cup - Kuba People - Congo

These special vessels were carved to order by special artists (figure MFA cup).  Many drinking horns are used for palm wine and have ritual connotations.  A person’s status was shown within the Kuba court by the amount of detail put into the vessels.  Buffalo horns are used which show power as well as geometric shapes that appear on textiles and in scarification.  When these drinking flasks had ram horns, it symbolized the fact that the owner held a senior position in the Kuba court (MFA gallery label).
Kuba cup

Cosmetic Boxes: Cosmetic boxes and other types of ornate containers are popular within the Kuba society and are carved out of wood.  The cosmetics held within the container include tukula powder, a substance made from the bark of a tree; this was used for the body, hair, and preparation for the burial of the deceased (Cole , 386).
Men and women have different roles to play in the creation of art that truly represents the Kuba people.  The men create curvilinear wood elements by carving wood while the women spend their time adding stylized rectangular representations to the carvings.  Men also create art in different forms of media besides wood, such as stone (Meurant , 116).



 
Kuba belt

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Kuba Nyim (ruler) Kot a Mbweeky III, Bungamba village, Congo

Cup: Head with Headdress, 19th–20th century
Democratic Republic of Congo; Kuba peoples
Wood; H. 9 5/32 in. (23.26 cm)
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Purchase, Nelson A. Rockefeller Gift, 1967 (1978.412.541)
Founded in the early seventeenth century in what is today south-central Democratic Republic of Congo, the Kuba kingdom was a wealthy state with an elaborate, merit-based system of courtly titles. Because positions of power within the Kuba court were awarded rather than inherited, members of the aristocracy went to great lengths to distinguish themselves from their peers. Drawing upon the skill and talent of local artisans, they commissioned elegant personal accessories that displayed their prosperity, personal achievements, and upward mobility.
One way in which Kuba titleholders displayed their wealth and generosity was through the distribution of large quantities of palm wine to their friends and associates. At the court, drinking vessels were a vital accessory of great symbolic value. This ornately carved wooden cup combines human and animal forms to communicate ideals of refinement and power. Its elegant facial features are well formed and symmetrically arranged, while the mouth is small and closed, reflecting the belief that careful thought should always precede speech. The cup also depicts the Kuba aesthetic practice of shaving the hairline to frame and offset the forehead, considered the seat of wisdom and insight, and draw attention to the raised cicatrizes on the temples, another sign of cultural refinement. Large, curving horns are juxtaposed with these anthropomorphic elements. They evoke the ram, a dominant, aggressive animal that does not tolerate rivals. In the competitive atmosphere of Kuba political life, a man who embodied the dual qualities of cultivation and ambition could expect to attain impressive titles and awards.

Kuba King in ceremonial regalia, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photo by Angelo Turconi.
The photograph was taken at the dance area of the royal village. For this ceremony, a particular costume was required that was not too somber. This was an opportunity to display a very beautiful belt made of leopard hide and richly decorated, called nkap, which in principle only the king can wear, but which in fact he can loan to a dignitary or a favorite. The second belt, the property of the notables, is called mwandaan, and has two large knots on the front; it is the “secret belt.” If, during a meeting, the king says something that displeases the titleholder, they shake the belt. To refuse certain secrets, the king says: “Do not make me untie my belt.” The headgear is also a royal headgear, made of leopard skin, called ipul.

Kuba woman

Titleholder Hat (Laket Mishiing), 19th–20th century
Democratic Republic of Congo; Kuba peoples
Raffia palm fibers, beads, metal
Gift of Lilly Dache, 1974 (1974.83.14)
The Kuba kingdom was founded in the early seventeenth century in what is today south-central Democratic Republic of Congo. As a result of its prosperity and stability, it became a center renowned for its remarkable artistic invention. Except for that of the king, who was considered divine, titles at the Kuba court were awarded rather than inherited, resulting in intense competition over positions of power. To signal their upward mobility, ambitious Kuba titleholders commissioned local artisans to produce elegant personal accessories to wear and display.
Splendidly decorated caps were one type of item that indicated Kuba male social standing. Men received small raffia hats, called laket mishiing, upon completion of an initiation process that signaled their transformation into mature members of Kuba society. As they moved up the social ladder and occupied positions requiring greater experience and responsibility, their headgear continuously changed to reflect their accomplishments. Nearly all hats were based upon a type of simple domed cap worn on the crown of the head and held in place with a metal pin. Materials such as beads, shells, metal ornaments, feathers, and animal hair were affixed to this structure depending on the nature and extent of the wearer's achievements.
This cap is an especially striking and beautiful example of Kuba beadwork. Much of its surface is covered in a cruciform pattern of appliquéd cowry shells and blue beads, while beaded bands in blue and white have been sewn along the hat's crown and base. Cowry shells and beads were both used as forms of currency in this region prior to colonialism, while white and blue were colors specifically associated with positive attributes such as religious purity, prominence, and leadership. Together, these elements indicated that the wearer of this work of art was not only wealthy but also an eminent and respected member of Kuba society. Finally, a fringe of beads and metal bells running along the cap's lower edge adds an audible component. Any movement of the head would have been accompanied by a light tinkling noise and brilliant flash of color that animated the hat and drew attention to its owner's high rank and great accomplishments.

Prestige Panel, 19th–20th century 
Democratic Republic of Congo; Kuba peoples 
Raffia palm fiber; L. 45 3/4 in. (116.2 cm) 
Gift of William Goldstein M.D., 1999 (1999.522.15) 
The various stages of textile preparation, production, and adornment engage the collaborative efforts and skills of all members of Kuba society. The cultivation of raffia palm and its subsequent weaving on a vertical heddle loom are the responsibility of men. Individual woven units (mbala) are relatively standardized panels that women embroider with dyed raffia to create a plush pile. These cloths are intended as independent prestige items.

The classic techniques have been applied by female embroiderers over the centuries with considerable innovation and have yielded a dazzling spectrum of formal solutions. Distinctive motifs introduced into the Kuba repertory are assigned names that often acknowledge the ingenuity of individual designers. In the complex composition of this symmetrical double panel, a central interlacing motif appears in the foreground of a dense arrangement of concentric lozenge forms. Through their combined tonal and textural articulation, these patterns project dramatically from the gold field.

Lidded Container, 19th–20th century
Democratic Republic of Congo; Kuba peoples
Wood, camwood powder, palm oil patina; H. 10 1/4 in. (26.03 cm)
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Gift of Eliot Elisofon, 1956 (1978.412.299a,b)
Ornately carved wooden containers such as this one were kept by Kuba men in what is today south-central Democratic Republic of Congo to store costume accessories and items used for personal care. These included razors, beads, and camwood powder used to coat and beautify the skin.
Three smooth, raised borders divide the container's surface into four horizontal bands of incised geometric designs. The crisscrossing lines and repeating diamonds that cover the box are collectively known as nnaam, a Kuba term referring to the tangled vines and creepers that grow in the fertile forests of this region. This design also evokes the interwoven cane splints of baskets, and indeed the vessel's shape—a cylindrical body with a square foot and lip—is a common basketry form among the Kuba peoples and their neighbors. The replication of a woven basketry artifact in carved wood is characteristic of the playful invention of Kuba personal arts.

Nyimi Kok Mmabiintosh III – King of Kuba – D. R. Congo. king9 igwe kenneth nnaji onyemaeke orizu iii The Kings of Africa photographed by Daniel Laine


KUBA ART AND RULE
BY JOSEPH AURÉLIEN CORNET (1919 - 2004) 
FORMERLY INSTITUTE FOR NATIONAL MUSEUMS OF CONGO

If the king of the Kuba possesses absolute power, this power is effectively controlled, most especially by the senior officials and titleholders. The result is the importance and the frequency of conferences. In order to emphasize their independence, the titleholders never gather inside the palace, rather, they gather outside the enclosure. The large structure called nshool, which is visible behind the king, is the guardhouse or entry structure. At the time the photograph was taken the structures of the palace were not entirely completed. The king is the only one who has the right to a chair, everyone else is seated on mats. The king never speaks directly to the title holders, but has a spokesman, seated before him, who is one of a set of twins who hold this position. The titleholders are in a circle, each with his particular required costume, hairstyle, and accessories. Behind the king, a group of people from the court help with the meeting.
The Kuba king presides over a conference, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photograph by Angelo Turconi.

In a corner of the palace in Mushenge, capital of the BaKuba, the king formally receives visitors. This is why he is dressed in his most important regalia and is seated on the sacred platform. Here, the regalia is complete, a rare occurrence, because it weighs about 80 kilograms (176 lbs.). The part that is most noticeable here is the belt. This is the nduun belt, which is said to be made of pounded bark and which reminds the Kuba of the time long ago before raffia fiber existed. For the king, the modest belt is transformed into a long, rectangular belt, covered with cowrie shells, and is especially heavy. This is the nduun Bushoong, the “belt of the Bushoong,” to whom the king is related. In front of the king, we can see some women from his family, who provided the chants for the ceremony.
Kuba King in working costume, Mushenge, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photo by Joseph Cornet.

Near the courtyard of the royal palace, seated on a throne placed on the old royal platform, with one section stripped of its leopard skins, the king appears wearing labot lapuum, one of his most prestigious and noble costumes. Seated around him are some members of his family, his wives and children. His senior wife is at the right, identified by her necklace and elaborate wrapper. The king's neck is adorned with a famous necklace of leopard fangs, one of only two that still exist. The royal skirt is white, contrasting with the red skirts of those around him. It is enormously long and is made of seventeen pieces of raffia. The king holds two horns, dating from the 16th century, at the time the costume was first worn by the founder of the dynasty, king Shyaam a-Mbul a-Ngwoong.
The Kuba king presides over a dance in his palace, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photo by Angelo Turconi.

Among the nobles who surround the king, called “the uncles of the king,” the second rank is made up of those who are given the title tslhik’l. In addition to the king's collar (made of long straight wool), his two major symbols or badges of office are the axe he carries on his leftshoulder and the headgear that is reserved only for him. This is generally in the shape of a Kuba hat, but is enriched with beads and cowries. It is surmounted by a tuft of red parrot leathers, and below by a tail that hangs in front of the face. The headgear is accompanied by a band of cowries across the chest. The white pigment on the forearm represents the tradition of rubbing oneself with kaolin for important ceremonies. In the corner of his mouth, the red parrot feather is a symbol of wisdom, and because it makes it difficult to speak, it is then a symbol of circumspection.
Kuba titleholder tshik'l, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photo by Angelo Turconi.

Among the Kuba, nephews or cousins of the king usually have limited power. This one is a nyimbal’k, a judge who presides after an accident occurs. After seeing him in his everyday dress, typically a European suit, one is astonished by his transformation by the wearing of traditional regalia. His wrapper is a foreign textile, and is not embroidered, except for the border. The collar is unique and is worn bandoleer style. He wears a single bracelet on his wrist. Only the collar of fur identifies him as a member of the royal family. Everything is carefully controlled and reflects his rank. Good taste, reasonable proportion, and a noble attitude are the perfect and most eloquent expression of the status of the wearer of this costume.
Kuba nyimbal'k (judge), Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photo by Angelo Turconi.

At the death of a king, the affairs of state of the Kuba are entrusted to two or three important titleholders who become “regents.” Over a period of time, they assert some royal power. They retain this honor all the rest of their lives, along with some very important and valued privileges. Among the most important is the right to wear regalia that is very close in magnificence to the most beautiful royal regalia. This regent is called Kwete Mwana, since passed away. We can notice in this magnificent costume the headdress with a visor, which can also be seen on the royal sculptures, the collar of leopard's fangs, only the second of its type, the extraordinary richness of the wrapper (this one was ordered by the regent himself and took one year’s labor). The whole ensemble is made up of more than forty items, which take several hours to don. The regent is posed before a great woven 
A former regent, Kuba peoples, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photo by Angelo Turconi.

Each Kuba king owns two costumes called bwaantsh, one of which will be buried with him. Only the king is permitted to wear them. These costumes are an assemblage of all the most magnificent parts of prestige regalia numbering about fifty items. The only piece missing here is the great belt (which has nineteen rows of cowries and is four meters long). The sword and the scepter are the marks of supreme authority. The head gear is curiously in the form of a small house, the “house of the king.” On either side of the king, the senior wife and another important woman from the king’s harem, a woman of mixed African-European ancestry, are kneeling and participate in the courtly homage given by the people. Among the Bushoong, even commoners demonstrate a particular appreciation for jewelry as visible signs of prestige.
Kuba peoples, Democratic Republic of the Congo, king in regalia. Photo by Angelo Turconi.

Of the two royal masks moshambwooy and bwoom, the former is the most important; its meaning is tied to the legend of the creation of the Bushoong people, because it is traced to the founder Woot. Each of the masks has its own personal name. Only the king may wear such masks in performance, unless he has specifically delegated the honor to someone else. These masks have their own retinues of chiefs and certain titleholders. The royal mask appears rarely: here it is seen at the performance area of the capital. The dance of the mask is accompanied by singing and the rhythm of drums. The movements are quiet and slow, with very complex dance steps, which interpret the texts of the songs. The spectators take pleasure in identifying the relationship between the steps of the dance and the text of the songs. The performer does not allow any part of his body to show, because he is supposed to have become a spirit. He even wears gloves and shoes that cover every inch of his skin.
A dance of the principal royal mask, Kuba peoples, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photograph by Angelo Turconi.

The royal mask is dancing here in the royal harem, before the women of the palace. That is why he is accompanied by the wives of the royal family. They are wearing their beautiful skirts with wavy edges (these are called ntshak). When standing in profile, we can see the projections on the upper part of the headgear that give the mask its proud appearance. The mask's name is Lapukpuk. It dates from the 19th century, and was restored in the early years of the 20th century. The main costume is not a skirt but a tunic that covers the entire body, decorated with tiny black and white triangles. The ornament that bounces around his neck is a sort of stretched gourd, covered with cowries. The mask itself is considered to be blind, therefore a few objects made of plant material are always attached to the performer, and serve at times to guide him.
Kuba peoples, Democratic Republic of the Congo, dance of bwoom mask. Photo by Angelo Turconi.The bwoom mask is a helmet mask. (The mask is blind, usually carved mostly of wood, and the performer can bend back his head so that he can make out the limits of the dance area; in fact many performers see out through the nose. He also wears a tunic—the only surviving example that is old—but freshly cut leaves are attached to his belt. This mask, of superior beauty with regard to shapes and proportions, replaces the mask called Lwoop lambwoom, which was carved at the beginning of the 19th century and masterfully restored a hundred years later by an artist (it is in the museum in Kinshasa). This mask is made of leather, a material reserved for the use of the king. The masks beard is decorated with cowries, also only for the king. The neck is particularly rich in cowries and beads, which is customary for masks of this type.)

Kuba peoples, Democratic Republic of the Congo, royal mask dance. Photo by Angelo Turconi.
(This is a rare photograph of two royal masks, moshambwooy and bwoom, performing together before the king and a group of titleholders in the palace enclosure. The action of the mask kneeling before the king makes it possible to see the ornaments on the back: beneath the richly ornamented collar of the mask can be seen a large metal disk, a lantshaang, whose origin has apparently been forgotten; and the mikyeen, a large black ornament made up of nine bands decorated with beads, with a round shell at the top. The choreography of the dance must adhere to a series of customs. If the performer makes a misstep, the entire audience makes fun of him. A slave must gather up of the bits that fall from the mask costumes, because these are sacred entities; another carries a pole topped with a bundle of magical materials.)

Between two segments of the performance in the dance area at Mushenge, the moshambwooy and bwoom masks rest for a moment. On the former, we can admire the great white beard, symbol of the wisdom of this most senior of masks; the latter allows us to take a close look at his tunic covered with cowries and the long strands of raffia that are used to help direct the dance of this blind character. Everyone wears traditional dress with the typical Kuba hairstyle, the laket woven partially with raffia, the type of palm tree visible in the background. Between the two masks, a titleholder gives advice and directions to bwoom. This is the sculptor, Lyeen, one of the last great sculptors working under the king's patronage, himself the son of a king as is made clear by his particularly elaborate and beautiful skirt. This type of spectacle has become very rare in recent years.
Kuba peoples, Democratic Republic of the Congo, royal mask dance. Photo by Angelo Turconi.

The women's dances in the royal palace are elaborate and refined, very slow and carefully choreographed, both in gesture and in step. The women's choir accompanies them, with the rhythm accentuated by the sound of gourds struck on the sand. The participants carry richly decorated flywhisks, which they wave dramatically. The first three performers have particularly spectacular costumes. These performers include two of the king's aunts and his most senior wife. One can identify three different types of women's skirts, each of which identifies the social rank of the wearer. The metal anklets symbolize nobility. These details contrast markedly with the simplicity of the women who follow dressed in simple raffia skirts dyed red with tukula powder, and without anklets. The women gesture symbolically.
Women's dance in the royal court, Kuba peoples, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photograph by Angelo Turconi.

The current king of the Kuba belongs to a second royal dynasty. There are, however, some relics of the first, especially in the person of a titleholder called muyum, who, in his tiny territory, hardly larger than a small village, exercises certain exceptional privileges. The king must honor him, because he possesses some of the objects that validate rule which are essential to the kingdom. The two meet at the royal enthronement, and then must never encounter each other, except in the greatest secrecy. The court of the muyum has all the features of the king's own court, especially in the costume and identity of the important titleholders. He can be seen here, during a ceremony, wearing the costume of the moshambwooy mask and receiving the respects of a commoner woman, with his slave seated at his feet.
Ceremonial presentation of the muyum (title holder) to the council, Kuba peoples, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photograph by Angelo Turconi.

Kuba belt


Kuba wastebox

Kuba hat

Kuba cup





Kuba hat 







Royal drum of Kuba people






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