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Throne of Njouteu: Royal Couple
Late 19th–early 20th century
Bansoa chiefdom, until 1969; Count Baudouin de Grunne, Brussels, Belgium, 1969–1994 (portion of throne with male figure only; female figure acquired and reattached to throne after 1984); a private collection, 1994–2014
2014.256
Episode 9 / 2015
Featured Work

This work is among the rare examples of a major sculptural genre missing from most museum collections..."

This work is among the rare examples of a major sculptural genre missing from most museum collections. Elaborately carved beaded thrones represent the most exalted art form historically associated with the reign of a monarch in the Grassfields region of Cameroon. Conceived as the defining attribute of the king's tenure in office, the throne was the visual focal point of court ceremonial life. A new leader was installed on the throne of his predecessor and, once securely in command, might commission an especially gifted artist to design a throne specifically identified with him. This throne has been associated with Njouteu, a chief of Bansoa whose brief reign ended with his death in 1918.

Before the twentieth century, the Grassfields region was governed by some 150 monarchic polities whose combined royal and commoner populations ranged from 200 to 60,000 constituents. Patronage of sculptural works played a pivotal role in governance. Art historians subdivide the region into three broad stylistic centers; this work relates to the western Bamileke chiefdoms, whose artists produced ambitious architectural programs, monumental ceremonial seats of office, and commemorative portraits of individual leaders and members of their courtly entourage.

This throne features a royal couple with insignia of leadership positioned above a caryatid leopard, a metaphor for kingship. The king holds a drinking horn and wears a prestige cap, a loincloth fastened with a leopard-skin belt, bracelets, and a necklace. His consort holds a calabash receptacle for palm wine, her status indicated by the circlet of currency shells that edge her coiffure. Artists encased such carved representations in costly beadwork obtained through long-distance trade. The rich royal blue is identified with the highest echelon of leadership at courts across the region. The brilliantly colored palette of glass beads is further enlivened by abstract two-dimensional graphic motifs associated with fertility and abundance.

Alisa LaGamma
Ceil and Michael E. Pulitzer Curator
Department of Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas
Expert interview
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