In all world cultures, artists honor remarkable leaders by creating lasting works of art in their honor. Historical leaders in the West, like Charlemagne and Alexander the Great, were celebrated for their accomplishments during their lifetime and remembered through many works of art created to preserve their legacy. During the first half of the eighteenth century, the Kuba King Mishé miShyááng máMbúl was celebrated throughout his kingdom for his generosity and for the great number of his loyal subjects. He was even the recipient of his own praise song. At the height of his reign in 1710, he commissioned an idealized portrait-statue called an ndop. With the commission of his ndop, Mishé miShyááng máMbúl recorded his reign for posterity and solidified his accomplishments amongst the pantheon of his predecessors. The ndop that portrayed his likeness was eventually purchased by the Brooklyn Museum in 1961 and has largely been on view at the museum since that time. It was first collected in 1909 by a colonial minister in what was then the Belgian Congo, the European country’s colony.
Why are Mishé miShyááng máMbúl and others commemorated in the arts of Africa largely unknown to us? Unlike in Euro-American contexts, history in Sub-Saharan Africa was not written down by members of cultural communities until colonialism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Instead of written records, oral narrative was the primary method for collective and personal histories to be passed down from one generation to the next. As these spoken histories were passed down, they were changed and adapted to reflect their times. The changing nature of oral narrative is like a highly complex game of telephone, where the words can be changed, and often only the spirit of the original meaning is preserved.
Before being purchased by Western collectors and museums, African sculptures served as important historical markers within their communities. The ndop sculptural record helps freeze a moment in time that would otherwise be transformed during its transmission from generation to generation. When we look at these sculptures in museums, it is important to remember that they were created about and for individuals. Since information and history were transferred orally in Africa, sculptural traditions like the ndop can help us gain insight into information about historical individuals and their cultural ideals.
The Kuba artist
The Kuba live in the Democratic Republic of the Congo on the southern fringes of the equatorial forest in an area bounded by two rivers called the Kasai and Sankuru. Over a period of three centuries of movement and exchange beginning in the 17th century, this loose confederacy of people formed into a durable kingdom. Since that time, the name “Kuba” largely refers to nineteen unique but related ethnic groups, all of which acknowledge the leadership of the same leader (nyim).
The Kuba are renowned for a dynamic artistic legacy across media. Historically, Kuba artists were professional woodcarvers, blacksmiths, and weavers who worked exclusively for the nyim. Kuba artists learned their art by becoming apprentices to others who were well-known and accomplished in their community. Similar to art traditions in other world cultures, the apprentices imitated or copied early pieces from their teachers until they were skilled enough to develop their own designs. Although the names of individual artists were not written down—and are not known to us today—artists were sought after by name and were important to the Kuba royal court and beyond.
The ndop statues might be the most revered of all Kuba art forms. The ndop (literally meaning “statue”) is a genre of figurative wood sculpture that portrays important Kuba leaders throughout the eighteenth to twentieth centuries. Art historians believe that there are seven ndop statues of historical significance in Western museums. These seven are significant because the lives of the nyim they portray were celebrated in oral histories that were recorded and written down by early European visitors, so we know the most about them.
You can travel to the British Museum in England or the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Belgium to see ndop. Ndop sculptures that are on view at the British Museum were brought to Europe from Africa by Hungarian ethnographer Emil Torday. Torday and other early visitors to the Kuba court documented oral traditions related to artwork. Art historians have since tried to reconstruct and sort out these early accounts; they use the sculptures themselves to interpret precolonial Kuba history.
Ndop sculpture have rounded contours creating forms that define the head, shoulders, and stomach, and also feature a defined collarbone. While the relative naturalism may appear to have been informed by an artist’s one-to-one observation of the nyim, ndop sculptures aren’t exact likenesses; they are not actually created from direct observation. Instead, cultural conventions and visual precedents guide the artists in making the sculpture. The expression on the face, the position of the body, and the regalia were meant to faithfully represent the ideal of a king—but not an individual King. For example, the facial features of each statue follow sculpting conventions and do not represent features of a specific individual. All figures are sculpted using a one-to-three proportion—the head of the statue was sculpted to be one-third the size of the total statue. Kuba artists emphasized the head because it was considered to be the seat of intelligence, a valued ideal.
How are we able to identify each ndop, then? There are specific attributes that link each ndop to named individuals. All ndop sculpture would feature a geometric motif and an emblem (ibol), chosen by the nyim when he was installed as a leader and commissioned his ndop. The geometric motif pattern and the ibol served as identifying symbols of his reign and was sculpted in prominent relief on the front of each base. The ibol is a signifier that gives the ndop its particular identity, making it clear who the sculpture portrays and what reign it represents. A drum with a severed hand is the ibol for Mishé miShyááng máMbúl’s reign, and that helps us identify the sculpture as his likeness.
Other styles or conventions that were followed by sculptors of ndop can be found in royal regalia such as belts, armbands, bracelets, shoulder ornaments, and a unique projecting headdress, called a shody. The arms of each ndop extend vertically at either side of the torso, with the left hand grasping the handle of a ceremonial knife (ikul) and the right hand resting on the knee. Artists decorated the surface of the sculpture by carving representations of what was conventionally worn; the finely chiseled details correspond to objects that represent the prerogative and prestige of the nyim.
The ndop of Mishé miShyááng máMbúl is part of a larger genre of figurative wood sculpture in Kuba art. These sculptures were commissioned by Kuba leaders or nyim to preserve their accomplishments for posterity. Because transmission of knowledge in this part of Africa is through oral narrative, names and histories of the past are often lost. The ndop sculptures serve as important markers of cultural ideals. They also reveal a chronological lineage through their visual signifiers.
David A. Binkley and Patricia Darish, Kuba (Milan: 5 Continents Press, 2010).
Alisa LaGamma, Heroic Africans: Legendary Leaders, Iconic Sculptures (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011).
William Siegmann and Joseph Adande, African Art: A Century At The Brooklyn Museum (New York: Prestel, 2009).
Jan Vansina, “Recording the Oral History of the Bakuba,” Journal of African History 1, no. 1 (1960): pp. 43–61.