Friday, 15 May 2015


Kuba Art and Rule by Joseph Aurélien Cornet (1919 - 2004)
Formerly Institute for National Museums of Congo

The Kuba king presides over a conference, Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Photograph by Angelo Turconi.

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.

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 King in working costume, Mushenge, Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Photo by Joseph Cornet.

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 titleholder tshik'l, 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.
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.

The Kuba king presides over a dance in his palace, Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Photo by Angelo Turconi.

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.

Kuba peoples, Democratic Republic of the Congo, dance of royal mask.
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 mat.

Kuba peoples, Democratic Republic of the Congo, king in regalia.
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.

A dance of the principal royal mask, Kuba peoples, Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Photograph 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.

Kuba peoples, Democratic Republic of the Congo, royal mask dance.
Photo 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.

Kuba peoples, Democratic Republic of the Congo, royal mask dance.
Photo by Angelo Turconi.

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.

Women's dance in the royal court, Kuba peoples, Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Photograph 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.

Ceremonial presentation of the muyum (title holder) to the council, 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.

Information sourced from 

Administrative Offices:
1375 Highway One West
1840 Studio Arts Building
Iowa City, IA 52242
View Museum Locations
Telephone (319) 335-1727
Fax (319) 335-3677

No comments: