Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Portraits of African Leadership

Thematic Essays

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In Africa, sculptural depictions of rulers and ancestral heroes have served a variety of political and spiritual functions. Passed down along dynastic lines or commissioned by current rulers, such images were often displayed as evidence of pedigree to justify and consolidate power, and sometimes served as conduits for communication between the ancestors and their living successors. Rulers often utilized the medium of portraiture to present themselves to their subjects, frequently in idealized terms that conveyed their physical, intellectual, and spiritual superiority. Often the very act of commissioning a portrait was an indication of the ruler's power and dynastic legitimacy that demonstrated the individual's control over important economic and artistic resources. In some political traditions, it also showed that a ruler had undergone ritual processes of investiture that revealed his or her underlying character and ultimate destiny—features that could then be realized in visual form. Some types of portraiture were not figural at all but evoked the subject metaphorically by portraying a set of personal attributes in visual form.


Alexander Ives Bortolot
Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University