Kings and Chiefs
Artist Unknown Kuba Kingdom, Bushoong people, Democratic Republic of Congo, 'Ceremonial dance skirt', raffia, early 20th century, Collection of the National Gallery of Australia
Royal Africa: Kings and chiefs is a Children’s Gallery exhibition of art produced in and for royal and chiefly courts in West and Central Africa over 500 years
Like their counterparts in Europe and elsewhere, African kingdoms and empires supported a vast number of bureaucrats, advisers, courtiers, court officials and others, including artists of all kinds. Ancient and long-lived kingdoms such as Kuba, Asante (Ashanti) and Benin were, and still are, administered from the vast palaces of the kings who were religious as well as temporal leaders. Of the palace of the Oba (ruler) of Benin, Olfert Dapper wrote in 1662 that it ‘occupied as much space as the town of Haarlem’ and that its size and striking beauty compared favourably with architecture in his native Holland.
The wealth of art within the palace was equally impressive and the fine cast metalwork and carved ivory for which Benin was renowned features in the exhibition. This small 16th-century brass hip-mask, a badge of rank in the Oba’s court, which associates the Oba’s enor-mous personal might, symbolised by the leopard, with his ability to engage the aid of powerful outsiders in the form of the two flanking figures of Europeans.
The Yoruba people of Nigeria invest the elaborately beaded tall ade or crown with awesome power derived in part from the spirit of the previous wearers. It is only worn once, at the ruler’s investiture. Every element is loaded with symbolic meaning; the shape, for example, recalls the primeval mound of the beginning of creation, the colours of the beads the attributes of powerful gods in the vast Yoruba pantheon.
The sceptre-like staff from the Baule people of Cote d’Ivoire shows a woman standing deferentially before another woman seated on a stool – a clear demarcation of status. This work, with its detailed carving and beautifully delineated tension between the two figures, has an impact out of all proportion to its size.
In the Kuba court in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, women (usually the wives and daughters of the King and high-ranking court officials) produce the rich, velour textiles made of the dyed shoots of raffia plants which are sewn together to make the spectacular wrap-around skirts worn at court. The abstracted patterns which flicker across these cloths are repeated in the scarifications on the bodies of Kuba women and derive from the original mat laid on the sky by the creator to fix the cardinal points. Artistic innovation is an important feature of these textiles; the king himself is expected to invent new patterns.
Some of the richest, most wonderful and often most surprising art is produced in courts all over the world. This exhibition shows that Africa is no exception.