Heroic Africans: Legendary Leaders, Iconic Sculptures

September 21, 2011–January 29, 2012

The Golden Age of Shyáám and Beyond: The Kuba

When they look at this statue they will be able to remember me and think I am looking at them, consoling them when they are sad, giving them inspiration and new courage.

—Attributed to Shyáám áMbúl áNgoong, as told by Kwete Peshanga Kena [Kot áPe] to Emil Torday, 1908

Kuba oral histories recall the migration of their eighteen constituent ethnic groups to the western Kasai region of what is now central Democratic Republic of the Congo by 1568. There they were united within a paramount chieftaincy during the seventeenth century and a new political dynasty came to be embodied by the larger-than-life hero Shyáám áMbúl áNgoong (r. ca. 1630).

Following his installation, a new Kuba leader, or nyim, announced his choice of a praise name, geometric pattern, and signature emblem (ibol), which became identifying symbols of his reign. He subsequently commissioned the official ndop sculpture that would serve as a surrogate for his person. During a nyim's lifetime, his ndop served as his spirit double; following death it was the site for his life force. Paradoxically this genre was designed to make manifest the essence of an individual while deliberately obfuscating physiognomic differences through adherence to an established visual lexicon. Consequently each leader's ndop is a variation on a highly unified visual theme not unlike the rich exploitation of pure abstract pattern that is a signature of Kuba aesthetics.

Selected Artworks