Date: mid to late 19th century
Geography: Angola or Democratic Republic of the Congo
Culture: Kongo peoples, Kakongo group
Medium: Wood, glass, metal, kaolin
Dimensions: H. 11 1/2 in. (29.2 cm)
Credit Line: Purchase, Louis V. Bell Fund, Mildred Vander Poel Becker Bequest, Amalia Lacroze de Fortabat Gift, and Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1996
Accession Number: 1996.281
In Kongo culture, gravesites and cemeteries represent the threshold between the worlds of the living and the dead. They serve as focal points through which individuals can communicate with their forebears, honoring them and petitioning them for spiritual intervention. Especially important individuals are commemorated through enclosed shrines that house colorful groupings of wooden sculptures and personal belongings of the deceased. This seated male figure would have been at the center of such a sculptural display, flanked by a courtly entourage of wives, attendants, and retainers. As idealized commemorative portraits intended to be viewed and contemplated for generations, these figures were also meant to be appreciated for their aesthetic excellence.
The Kongo author of this work has captured a great deal of expression in the figure's contemplative features. The clear glass covering of the eyes gives them a striking depth and lifelike character, while the slightly downturned corners of the mouth are suggestive of reflection and sadness. Signs of rank, including a patterned fiber cap, filed teeth, and decorative scarification patterns, reveal the subject's chiefly identity. His dignified posture, called funda nkata, reflects the poise and control necessary for responsible and effective leadership. In Kongo art and culture, the gesture of resting head in hand is an indication of sadness, and in this context it suggests the "mourning for those left behind" (kyaadi ya bantu yina me bikana) that characterizes a good leader who seeks to assist and protect his people, even in the afterlife. The continuous circle created by the crossed legs evokes the Kongo concept of a cyclical world, which begins with birth, leads to death, and then begins again through rebirth. By assuming this position, the sitter indicates an understanding of this vision of the world and a humble acceptance of his place within it.
Although this artwork appears on the 20th-century segment of the Timeline, it is ascribed a date of 19th–20th century.