In the Boma region of Democratic Republic of Congo, Kongo peoples placed carved stone figures representing important individuals on their graves to remember their deeds in life. These figures are characterized by their wide range of gestures and postures. They are also distinguished by their use of stone, unusual in sub-Saharan Africa, where most carving traditions are based on wood. The association of stone with the concept of permanence makes it appropriate for use in commemorative funerary statuary.
The person commemorated in this example, made of steatite, was probably a ruler or noble. He wears a royal cap and a necklace, which symbolize rank and leadership. He sits cross-legged, left hand at his waist and right supporting his large, slightly tilted head. Downcast eyes imply deep thought, while his faint smile suggests serenity and calm. The figure appears closed in on the right side by its large arm. In contrast, the angular pose of the shorter left arm opens up the figure’s form. Kongo commentators describe this cross-legged seated posture as funda nkata, a position that emphasizes balance, composure, and reflection. On a symbolic level, the circular shape formed by the crossed legs refers to the unfolding cycle of an individual’s life. Embodying responsible and wise leadership, the sculpture presents an ideal image of the deceased that illustrates the Kongo dictum:
I seat myself nobly, upon the circle of my life, weighing what is going on.
© 2006 The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (by permission)