Sunday, August 10, 2008
"Kuba: Kingdom located between the Kasai, Sankuru and Lulua rivers in the region of West Kasai, Zaïre. The kingdom was multi-ethnic, with the Bushong ruling over a number of other ethnic groups: Ngende, Bulang, Pyang, Pyang Ibaam, Kayuweng, Kaam, Bieng (also inhabiting a chiefdom to the south), Kel, Ngongo, Ngombe, Maluk, Mbengi, Shoowa (Shobwa), Iding, Kete, Coofa and Cwa. In a strict sense, ‘Kuba art’ refers to the arts of the Kuba kingdom; there is no relationship between style and ethnic grouping. In a wider sense, ‘Kuba art’ includes the arts of neighbouring peoples whose artistic works are similar to those produced within the Kuba kingdom. Such peoples include the Lele and Wongo beyond the Kasai River to the west; the Biombo between the Kasai and Lulua rivers; the Ooli, Ekolombi and other small groups north of the River Sankuru; as well as the Ndengese across the Lokenye River and the Binji to the east. Kuba art first became known about in Europe in the 1890s through Ludwig Wolf’s account (1891). Scholarly understanding of Kuba arts is still based mainly on the collections made in the 1890s and 1900s by William Sheppard, Leo Frobenius and Emil Torday. These are held, respectively in the main, by the Hampton University College Museum of Hampton Institute, Hampton, VA; the Museum für Völkerkunde, Berlin; and the British Museum, London. These are just three of the many public collections of Kuba art.
Kuba masks and other arts:
Among the major focuses for Kuba art were the rites of passage, especially boys’ initiations. The latter involved the building of a wall, in front of which stood a tall statue of a woman symbolizing the ancestress, studded with carved heads and other symbolic objects, as well as masks.
All wooden Kuba masks clearly belong to a single style. The oldest one, Bwoom, represents the nature spirit Ngesh, Pygmy or Commoner depending on the context. It often forms part of a group including one depicting the ancestor of mankind, Mwaash aMbooy and his sister, Ngady aMwaash . Beyond these, a dozen other mask types exist, associated with initiation and representing such figures as Lord, Mother, Wise Man, Elephant, Ram and Antelope. Masks were also used at funerals and at the royal dancing-play, Itul, in which King, Mwaash aMbooy, and Commoner, Bwoom, fought over Woman, Ngady aMwaash.
In addition to the wooden masks, a set made in fibre and netting represented Servant of Initiation, Snake and Antelope and perhaps some others. A study of mask types, their nomenclature and their iconography is still needed. Regional variability is important here. The Bushong at the capital, the Bushong and the Kete in the south of the country, the Pyang, the eastern Kuba, the Biombo and perhaps some of the other Kuba groups had their own initiation rituals and their own masks and icons (see Africa, fig. 85). Among the Bulang and Kete in the south of the country some tall masks representing the whole bodies of ancestresses or spirits were also in use.
Other objects associated with religion included special hats for medicine men and the village priests and priestesses. There were no idols, but there were representations of charms, including free-standing statues (ishak a dweemy) and tiny carved figures on the top of dancing staffs (shaang a dweemy), as well as the small (20–30 mm) figures representing spirits of nature or the dead (nnoon), especially common in the south-east. The main oracle, the poison ordeal, used no art objects, but the rubbing oracle, itoom, did. It consisted of a small carving representing one of four animals related to water spirits, or the body of a nature spirit itself, with a flat back for rubbing along the top of the oracle.
Overall, however, religion was less a focus for visual art than was the political organization. The royal enthronement costume assimilated the badges of all ranks, but it also included elements proper only to the king. The royal anvil was a symbol of the legitimacy of kingship and its links to the supernatural. The royal funerals and installations, using a mass of visual symbols, including the mask Nsho aMwaash aMbooy, emphasized the uniqueness and the continuity of kingship as well as its relation to the administration.
Kings and chiefs alike possessed drums, stools, adzes and fly-whisks, costumes and baskets of office. According to rank, notables shared some of these insignia."
Jan Vansina (The Grove Dictionary of Art, online)