African Cups Embodying Human Forms

By: Henry Usher Hall

Originally Published in 1924

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Among a number of small bronze objects in the University Museum, hitherto unpublished, from the old kingdom of Benin in the British dependency of Southern Nigeria is a fine casket or covered cup belonging to the later period of artistic Bini workmanship, when there had taken place a reversion from foreign influences of the sixteenth century to older negro conventions of style.1 This interesting vessel is illustrated here [Figs. 1 and 2] together with several wooden cups from the Southwestern Congo [Figs. 3-20], the products of a group of Bantu tribes famous for their artistry in woodcarving. In all cases the cups are either in the form of human heads or bear such heads as a leading feature of their decoration.

Front and back of bronze cup in shape of a face, that opens at the top of the head/hair, the cup leans back slightly and is supported by legs
1, 2 – Two Views of a Bronze Cup or Casket from Benin.
Image Numbers: 626, 627

The Congo examples are household utensils, chiefs’ drinking cups, with the exception of that shown in Figs. 5 and 6, which is said to have been used in the poison ordeal, a device for the detection of crime common to both of the regions with which we are here concerned. The use of the Benin cup is unknown, but reference to other Bini vessels which were probably or certainly used in ceremonies or ritual may serve to suggest some possibilities as to the manner of its employment.

In the majority of cases in which the human form is given to objects of bronze made by Bini craftsmen, or in which it is applied to the decoration of such objects, these had a fetish or ritual or ceremonial purpose. We have therefore some ground for assuming that this cup was put to a formal or religious use.

Receptacles of various kinds are shown in the hands of the figures on many of the bronze panels or plaques which form the most numerous class of objects representative of Bini works of art in metal. One of these plaques in the UNIVERSITY MUSEUM2 shows a court functionary presenting a vessel somewhat resembling a quoit in shape and not unlike a cast metal bowl figured in General Pitt-Rivers’s Antique Works of Art from Benin, Plate XLIX, Fig. 387. Several of the fine series of plaques in the British Museum record similar scenes. One of these, Fig. 3, Plate XXI, in Antiquities from Benin, by C.H. Read and O.M. Dalton, has a central figure in the leopard skin coat of a warrior, holding a cup with both hands. He is flanked by two other figures holding swords and wands. The ceremonial character of this group is clearly indicated by the last feature.3 We are told by a Dutch traveller of the late 16th century, known only by the initials D.R., under which his observations occur in De Marees’ Description of Guinea, published in 1602,4 that “the king often sends out presents of food, which is all carried in good order through the streets. So also when the aforenamed things are borne, the bearers go all one behind another, and at the same time one or two go always beside them with a white wand, so that every one, were he even a nobleman, must yield and give way before them.”

Of the other examples in Read and Dalton’s work of what is evidently a similar ceremonial conveying or a presentation, perhaps votive or sacrificial, of food or drink, represented in the same series of plaques, the most striking are as follows.

Plate XXVIII, Fig. 1: Two figures “hold in both hands an oviform object in a bowl.” The third figure on this plaque holds “a covered globular vessel with a foot.” Fig. 2: Each of three figures “holds with both hands a vessel . . . . one a small jug, another a shallow bowl, the third a vessel with two handles and two projections.” Fig. 5: One of three figures carries a vessel like that of the third personage in Fig. 1.

That some at least of these ceremonially carried objects had also a ritual or fetish significance is suggested by the “oviform object” just mentioned, if the latter may be connected with what is known of the use of eggs in the Benin country.

In the Edo villages, i.e., in the villages formerly subject to the king of Benin, the youths, after taking part in funeral ceremonies, “before they go [home] . . . purify themselves with half an egg . . . given them by the sons [of the deceased], which they pass round their heads, holding it by means of a piece of palm-leaf inserted in a small hole. This ceremony is called iho m egbe (ban, come out of my body)…”5

What is here evidently a kind of magico-religious catharsis or ritual purification from a ban or taboo contracted through contact with a corpse has its more purely magical parallel in the power of eggs to free one from an, at least partly, physical embarrassment. “A person accused of witchcraft is given the bark of the Inyi [sauce-wood, sasswood, Erythrophloeum guiniense] pounded up together with water. If the accused vomits he is considered innocent ; if he does not the poison generally kills him, and his guilt is thus proved.”6 This is a short and easy way with witches, reminiscent in its principle of the European water ordeal for the same sort of offenders, though effecting its results by a directly opposite mode of decision. The connection between the magical and wholesome power of eggs and the magical and baleful power of the poison is recorded by another observer. The bark, we are told, is pounded and mixed with water into a paste, from which eggshaped balls are formed to be swallowed by the accused. The latter provide themselves with fowls’ eggs, which are “repeatedly passed up the stomach to the throat “—exteriorly, we may suppose—after the poison is swallowed. “It was supposed to exercise an influence on the poison and bring it out.”7 A curious medley of white and black magic combined in the at once beneficent and harmful functioning of a state institution, and counteracted by a beneficent agent in the hands of a possibly guilty practitioner of the black art. The situation is still further complicated by the suggestion of a sympathetic connection between the shape of the poisonous pellets and that of the counteragent.

The egg was also apparently magically potent in promoting the increase of crops, and so connected here as in other parts of the world with fertility or regeneration. At the feast of new yams in November, among the offerings placed on the fetish altars along the road between Benin and Gwato were “above all eggshaped objects made of white substance, probably kaolin or pipeclay.”8

The connection of eggs with growth or with the promotion of something desirable of which new growths are auspicious is seen in two other modern Bini customs recorded by N. W. Thomas.9

At Yaju in the Edo country, “anyone who sees the first tooth [of an infant] gets an egg from the mother, fries it, touches the child’s mouth and then eats it.” A footnote adds the information that eggs are not, to the author’s knowledge, eaten at any other time. At Ama, “as soon as the child gets teeth it eats an egg of which the mother also takes a part.”

It is possible that the distinctly egglike shape of the vessel, Fig. I, may be connected with the obviously important rôle played by eggs in Bini magico-religious procedure. This receptacle is not the only one of its kind, so far as shape is concerned, in existence. In Webster’s Catalogue No. 29, Fig. 83, there is figured a bronze vessel similarly eggshaped with identically similar supports in the form of human legs. The forward surface is not modified in the same manner to assume the form of a human face, but presents a small full length human figure in high relief. This would seem to be sufficient to show that the form of the goblet pictured here was not determined by the necessity of representing a human head; it may therefore have been one of a class of objects representing another natural form. The conclusion is strengthened by the fact that the constriction of the upper part is not at all typical of Bini bronze heads, so that it is not straining probability unduly to compare this part to the small end of an egg.

The provision of legs to keep the vessels in a nearly upright position instead of the foot or base which is a structural part of the ordinary goblet seems to indicate a desire to preserve unimpaired the ovoid outline of both vessels. A similar arrangement in the case of another bronze vessel published by Webster10 is no doubt due to the same cause. The last named receptacle may well be a derivative of the more distinctly ovoid examples. It has the head of an ox in relief.

The domestic fowl, source of the magically potent egg, shared in the magico-religious potency of the latter. In the Edo villages, we are told, on the occasion of a funeral “a small chicken is brought by the children [of the deceased] and carried round the grave ; they say . . . ‘Ban, come out of the body ; the trouble that you had in this world you shall not suffer it again when you come again.’ The chicken is thrown in the bush.”11 The ban, taboo, or curse inhabiting the corpse is here apparently exorcised into the body of the fowl, which, like the egg used on a similar occasion to remove a ban from the mourners, seems to have an attraction for the malign influences connected with death. The chicken apparently takes the ban into itself and is cast into the outer harmlessness of the bush. It is difficult, without further data, to reconcile the functions of the egg or fowl in the matter of death with those it performs in connection with the beginning of life or growth. Perhaps the purification of the body of the deceased may have been a kind of preparation for a new birth, since belief in reincarnation was an article of Bini faith: what was conducive to fertility and regeneration might include in its functions the removal of anything possibly obstructive to the latter. At any rate, the useful fowl served physical as well as spiritual needs at funerals. Chickens were killed at the grave and eaten by the youths.12 “Before burial chickens are brought for purifying the body.”13

The cock was a favorite object for representation in the bronzes. There are two especially fine large examples exhibited in the UNIVERSITY MUSEUM.14 These, like other representations of birds, were probably a part of the altar furniture of a great chief or of the king. Sir Richard Burton,15 on his visit to Benin in 1862, saw in what he calls the atrium of the chief’s house where he was lodged certain “household gods, three wooden images of turkeys with drooping wings . . . supported by two short truncheons, and placed in a black and white striped niche in the northern wall, with a raised step below it.”

This was evidently the alcove with an altar which formed part of the arrangements of every important house in Benin town. The objects placed upon the altars, were, according to the importance of the householder, of a similar character to those placed upon the great juju altars of the king’s compound. Pots, or other receptacles, now usually of earthenware, formed an important part of these fetish objects; and no doubt our ovoid bronze head once stood in the varied array of such articles that adorned a royal altar or that of a chief. The supporting legs, it will be noticed, are provided with anklets of beadwork, a sign of nobility; and it could thus have stood in no commoner’s shrine. Ordinarily earthenware pots were used, as has been said; but an example is known of a metal pot of precisely the same pattern as the earthen ones in common use for this purpose in recent times. A drawing of it has been published by H. Ling Roth,16 who describes it as a “metal pot, similar to earthenware pots such as were in domestic use, and as were put full of food on the juju altar at a festival.”

As to the uses of these altar vessels and their significance little is known and that little can be gathered only from scattered references to their presence on juju altars in this particular region and in neighbouring states where religious usages were similar.

Burton17 saw at Gwato, near Benin town, on certain “domestic altars” “waterpots, pipkins of spirits, cowries, chalk-sticks, ivories . . . men’s heads coarsely imitated in wood and metal.” The last named were probably representations like those on the model juju altar in the African room of the UNIVERSITY MUSEUM.

On the altar of what was known as the Malaku House at Gwato —Malaku being the spirit of the big water, the sea—there were, according to Burton,18 a variety of offerings among which were “wooden pots like old leather jacks, but adorned with metal.”

Front and side views of two wooden cups, one with geometric patterns carved into the curved body, the other with a face carved into a more angular body
3, 4, 5, 6 – Two Wooden Cups from Kasia District of the Belgian Congo. The Lower was used in the Poison Ordeal.
Museum Object Numbers: AF5201 / AF5204
Image Number: 908, 909, 912, 913

What did the vessels on the Benin altars contain? In view of what we know about Bini customs, we may suspect that, sometimes at least, they held the blood of victims. When a great man died he was buried in an alcove in his favourite room. The tomb was a clay altar enclosing his bones. A similar altar, though larger and with more elaborate furniture, was the final resting place of the king. During several days after the king’s death “the capital is in mourning. Men masked and disguised in a fantastic way armed with [swords] throng the streets and steal the heads of those whom they meet, collecting the blood in copper dishes to pour on to the tomb of the king.”19 The French original of this quotation is not available, but presumably “dishes” is a general term equivalent to vessels; a shallow, open receptacle would not be particularly suitable for carrying a liquid any considerable distance. The fact that the vessels were of metal—copper probably means bronze—indicates that they were not for ordinary use; very likely taken from a king’s altar tomb, to be replaced there or put upon the new one.

In the ritual connected with the worship of the river god Ake a goat is sacrificed to the high god Osa. Some of its blood is poured into a bowl in front of the shrine and afterwards from this bowl on to the shrine itself.20

As to pots seen in position on altars in recent times, where we have record of their contents these seem always to be of a more innocent nature—water, usually, though, as we have seen, Burton found at Gwato “pipkins of spirits.” A reason for this use of water may be inferred from R.E. Dennett’s notes on the sacred rivers of Benin.21 The representatives of certain of these rivers are pots of water. “The sign of [the] river [Awreomo] is an earthenware pot of water.” Near its source “this river is called Ake, the axe. As a ‘juju’ this power Ake is represented” by various things which, we learn from the legend below the sketch of an Ake shrine on p. 221, include a pot of water, bananas, and yams. The pot of water, then, is apparently not merely a “sign” or representative of the sacred river, but, with other comestibles, an offering to the water divinity or spirit.

According to N. W. Thomas,22 the emblem of Osa is frequently a pot. Osa is the name which this author assigns to the Bini supreme deity.

Dennett’s account of sacred rivers continues: “Olukun is the Great Benin River, forming the southern boundary of the Kingdom. . . . Its sign is a pot of water. Every great house has an altar to Olukun in or near to which will be found a pot of water” and several other things including stones in an earthen pot.

The last item indicates that these altar utensils were sometimes of the nature of caskets and contained other things besides liquids. The pot or vase form for a casket has parallels in Dahomey. It is there the custom to place beside certain fetishes vases having lids of clay and in them offerings intended for the fetishes.23 There also, we learn, makers of receptacles from gourds or calabashes grow their own cucurbits and by binding the growing fruit with compressors obtain varied shapes. The finished article may be ornamented with incised designs; those which are so decorated are “objets de luxe,” in which jewels, etc., are kept.24

Ordinary Bini vessels also were formerly of calabash or wood. D.R. writes: “They bring also [to the great and little markets] much firewood, and also calabashes to eat and drink from, together with other kinds of wooden dishes and bowls which serve the same purpose.”25

The calabash is, in fact, a common West African utensil. A graceful bronze jar, thirty-six inches in height, which is said to have been a king of Benin’s wine jar appears in Webster’s Catalogue No. 19 (1899) as Fig. 62. It clearly suggests a slightly modified gourd form. His Catalogue No. 21 shows as Fig. 131 a bronze vase similar in shape which stands on a triple support representing human legs. The two other vessels figured by Webster which were referred to as possible derivatives of an egg form may in fact themselves be calabash derivatives; and consequently the same thing might be said to apply to Fig. 1 here.

On the other hand no ritual or ceremonial value is attributed to calabashes as such, and there would therefore, if these vessels represented calabash forms, be no point in attaching legs to them in such a manner that when the vessel is looked at from the front the supports are concealed and the characteristic outline of the whole is not interfered with—so that it might appear as calabash cum man or ox rather than as egg plus one of these.

There are precedents, of course, in Bini sacred art for the combination of what we should consider natural incompatibilities—for example in the well known catfish legs of the representations of the king. Bini categories in this realm are based on other conceptions than ours. The king was a juju or fetish, certain chiefs or nobles shared this quality in some degree, so did the catfish, and so did the egg. The probability of what might be called a Humpty Dumpty explanation for Fig. I appears in fact not extremely remote when viewed in this light—if one may be forgiven for associating Alice’s brittle and harmless monster with this brazen image and its implications of gory ritual practice.

Perhaps this vessel, then, stood on an altar of importance representing in bronze what on less important altars earthen pots stood for—one of the fetish rivers of the kingdom; or it contained there an offering of water, wine, food or cola nuts brought to the ancestor’s shrine. The latter is extremely probable, since we know that the large bronze heads which supported the carved tusks on the altars were portraits or representatives of ancestors. So standing habitually, it may have been fitly taken from time to time to convey a king’s offering such as those which we have seen were carried in procession through the town. That it was frequently handled and moved about is shown by bright patches of the metal which correspond naturally to the position of thumbs or fingers when it is held in the hands, and by the wear of the under surface of the supports. Elsewhere the metal is rather darkly patinated. Or the same vessel may have served, as also we have seen, to convey an offering of blood to the shrine where it habitually stood or to a new one erected to a king who had himself just become an ancestor. In any such case its utility and prestige would have been enhanced if it stood for two fetishes instead of one—for an ancestral spirit and for the spirit or force of fertility or regeneration represented by the egg.

Among the not very numerous old bronze or brass vessels from Benin which are known two besides those already mentioned present features of some interest in relation to the example we have been considering. These two vessels resemble each other closely, differing only in small details.26 They are bronze jugs with spouts, one in the British Museum and the other in the collection of the late General Pitt-Rivers. Both are bottle shaped, or “somewhat in the form of a coffee-pot,” to quote General Pitt-Rivers’s description. They have circular lids with hinges. Each has a handle in the form of a snake; in the case of the Pitt-Rivers example the snake holds a human figure in its jaws. In both cases the short spout issues from the distended mouth of what is apparently an ape seated on the bulge of the lower portion of the jug, the disproportionately long body reaching, with the head, almost to the top of the bottle neck. The figure of the Pitt-Rivers jug has two tails. Both vessels stand on five legs, four of which imitate human legs with the feet all pointed forward, that is in the direction in which the ape-like figure of the spout is looking. Each vessel has a human figure, seen by its costume to be that of a chief or king, seated on the lid and looking forward in the sense just indicated. The description of the Pitt-Rivers jug mentions four masks, presumably human, surrounding this figure on the surface of the lid, but masks in this position cannot be distinguished from the ‘photographs of either example. On the Pitt-Rivers jug, “round the swell of the vessel are four figures resembling frogs, the bodies ornamented as human heads.” The British Museum vessel, as shown in the photograph, has one human mask and indications of two more in a corresponding position. There are probably four, corresponding to the composite figures on the other jug. Another jug of this character, but without legs, is figured by Pitt-Rivers in Plate XXIV, Figs. 151 and 152.

The lid of the UNIVERSITY MUSEUM’s vessel has a hinge of the same kind as these two. In the centre of the lid is a mask which reproduces in miniature the essential features of the larger face below. The vessel is supported by only two legs, with the feet turned backward. Like the legs of the two jugs in England, they are provided with bead anklets, marks of rank. These latter vessels stand on the legs vertically, do not lean obliquely against them as in the example here.

Front and side views of two wood cups, each with faces carved into the front and a handle at the back
7, 8, 9, 10 – Two Kasai Cups
Museum Object Number: AF1946
Image Numbers: 894, 895, 914, 915

A third object of unknown use and furnished with legs of the same character is in the Bankfield Museum in Halifax (England).27 It is a bronze head, which like Fig. 1 has legs but no body. Like the two vessels just described it stands vertically on the legs, which are four in number but are not provided with anklets, while the feet are turned in four directions at right angles to one another. Though the legs have not the marks of rank, the head surmounts a beadwork collar and there is a band of beadwork about the forehead. These both serve as indications of nobility. They are both lacking in the case of the vessel pictured here ; but in this case rank is sufficiently indicated by the presence of the beadwork anklets and, probably, by the mask in the centre of the lid, since such masks appear among the adornments of the figures on the plaques which bear the usual signs of rank. The Bankfield Museum head is evidently a miniature copy of the bronze heads which served as supports for the carved tusks on the king’s altars. Since its size—it is 5½ inches in height is too small to allow of its being used for any such purpose, the crown of the head has not the hole which characterizes the latter.

The bronze head before us, in the colour of the metal and the treatment of the features of the face, resembles closely the heads of the good post-Portuguese period of which a fine example, a large head with winged headdress, stands third from the left on the Benin altar in this MUSEUM.28 The head of Fig. 1 lacks the elaborate beadwork accessories. The hairdressing of the latter is of the same type as that of the smaller and older heads, though the tiers of small plaits or tresses are here more numerous and more schematically rendered and much smaller, not merely in proportion to the reduced size of this example but when regarded as details of a study from life. Possibly in this case it is simply a device to represent the crinkled felted appearance of negro hair. That the intention is not to represent a woven cap is shown by the presence of five plaited tresses at each side of the head which overlie a part of this corrugated area. These are most satisfactorily accounted for by reference to a passage from a letter by the Dutch factor Nyendael written in 1702. He says:29 “The Men don’t Curl or Adorn their Hair, but content themselves with letting it grow in its natural Posture, except buckling it in two or three Places in order to hang a great Coral [bead] to it “—as the beads may be seen to hang in Fig. 2. Two plaited tresses or cords surround the crown of the head above the “buckles.” One of these belongs to the lid of the vessel. Above it is a plain cord, to which are fastened cowrie shells, and which forms the upper rim of the lid.

The employment of cowries, besides or perhaps in connection with their use as currency, had probably some magico-religious implication. At the time of Burton’s visit domestic altars were inlaid with these foreign shells.30

The space between the cowries and the mask in the centre is occupied by an open ring of guilloche in relief, the interstices of the design being filled with small flat topped bosses of the metals. Nyendael’s account of the men’s coiffure, as he no doubt observed it, does not do justice by any means to the variety of modes recorded by D.R. in an illustration accompanying his account of Benin in De Bry’s compendium of travels of a century earlier; and Dapper31 (1668) says that the women “make up their hair in an elegant fashion and plait it in the shape of a wreath on the top of their heads.” This might be a cursory description of the decoration of the top—including the lid—of the vessel before us. The presence of beads in the headdress is no indication of the sex of the wearer; the wives of nobles also wore the precious corals.

In some of the masks32 the well known bead “choker” which was a mark, or penalty, of nobility, has degenerated into a horseshoe shaped frame for the lower part of the face, and it is often decorated with a band of guilloche or other ornament probably representing the base of the “choker.” This frame commonly stands out from the side of the face in the plane of the four rings at the sides, Fig. I. Here the band of guilloche ornament which passes round the face from ear to ear may represent a final phase in the degeneration of the “choker.” Or, it may be a chin strap like those worn by some of the plaque figures. But where the strap occurs in the latter case, these figures are usually wearing hats or helmets. On the whole, the former conjecture seems more likely.

The complete chinlessness of the face may be partly due to copying from the altar heads with high collars concealing the lower part of the face. But the cleft retreating chin, markedly cleft and markedly retreating, is a feature of the older bronze heads, before the choker had grown to such formidable proportions. It is, perhaps, an additional argument for the egg basis of this head, that the chin has completely retreated, while tradition was sufficiently strong to assert itself in the retention of the cleft, which, besides, does less to mar the broad rounded outline of the lower part of the ovoid than would a chin of however slight downward rather than forward prominence. The chin, such as it was, has vanished into the cleft, if one may say so, and the latter alone remains to proclaim, somewhat paradoxically, the existence of the former.

Whether the short rectangular support below the place where a chin would normally be is intended to represent a beard and so enable us to determine the sex of the personage is uncertain. Beards of a rectangular cut appear in the representations of Europeans on tusks and other ivory and woodcarvings as well as in the case of some highly conventionalized heads of Europeans on the metal work. I have not been able to find a clear case where the head of a negro is represented with a beard of this form. This fact and the additional one that the appendage seems to be attached to the ornamental frame which encloses the face and not to the face itself make it seem unlikely that it is anything more than what its obvious function indicates—a third prop intended to give the face a decided upward tilt.

Four rings, two on each side, apparently not cast as a part of the vessel but soldered on, project just behind the band of guilloche ornament on the cheeks. Crotals or hawk’s bells were formerly attached to all of these, but now remain suspended by metal links from the lower two only. This emphasizes the resemblance of the head to the small bronze masks, which were worn as personal ornaments and often had a fringe of crotals suspended from the horseshoe frame or collar. The outer rim of the rings is decorated with a plaited design identical with that which forms a border to the band of guilloche surrounding the face; it is evidently suggested by the plaits of hair depending from each side of the head. It is repeated on the rings which go to form the hinge and the clasp of the lid.

The guilloche, a basketry form, which occurs again on the upper surface of the lid, is there not continuous. It is broken opposite the hinge and the gap filled by a loop and double coil ornament. The position of this ornament close to the back or top of the head both of the small mask on the lid and of the larger object of which the mask is a miniature replica is, curiously enough, paralleled by the occurrence of the same ornament at the back of the head of the Bankfield Museum object previously referred to. Its isolation in the latter case, where it fills an apparently otherwise purposeless break in the beadwork fillet, and its complete difference in character from the remainder of the decorative accessories of the head make it peculiarly conspicuous there and suggest, when these considerations are related to its similar position as shown in Fig. 2 here, that it may have some symbolic implication. It would not be easy to establish this definitely. There is nevertheless some reason for regarding this ornament, or this symbol, if it is such, as a degenerated or purposely simplified representation of the head of a European. The importance of the head as a feature in the fetish or religious observances of the Bini is well known. At Gwatun or Gwato on the outskirts of the kingdom a tradition connected the white man with a mythical race of apelike sorcerers.33 Has this tradition, perhaps, some relation to the apelike figures on the bronze jugs? If so, there would be precedent for putting a symbol of the white man, regarded as a potent fetish or juju, on other vessels or altar furniture, especially since the more realistic depiction of him on the altar tusks undoubtedly had some such significance.

Barbot, writing of the period near the end of the seventeenth century, says: “Europeans are so much honoured and respected at Benin, that the natives give them the emphatick name of Owiorisa . . . children of God; and in discoursing with us in person, they often tell us in broken Portuguese, Vos sa Dios, or, you are Gods.”34 This is evidently based, like the greater part of Barbot’s account of Benin, on the earlier account by Dapper, which in turn is based on that of D.R. In a translation from the Dutch of Dapper prepared for Ling Roth, the chronicler is made to say: “They call God Orisa, and the white one (den witte Owiorisa), i.e. God’s child.”35 There is some confusion here; what Dapper meant was, clearly, “and the white man (den witte) they call Owiorisa.” Owi in N.W. Thomas’s Edo vocabulary is the word for child.36 There is no evidence that Barbot was ever himself in Benin, but he was agent general for the Royal Company of Africa and knew the Guinea Coast, and there is no reason to doubt the authenticity of his confirmatory gloss on Dapper.

To return to the vessel itself. The two projecting lozenges near the rim in front may be the heads of hairpins. These projections are hollow and probably originally contained coral or other inlay. The raised vertical marks above the eyes are in imitation of those produced on the forehead of the living by scarification. Although such marks seem to have been intended as a tribal distinction they varied in number and disposition with the individual.

The length of the head exclusive of the prop in front is 5½ inches. It is thus of about the same size as the Bankfield Museum’s head.


The wooden vessels (Figs. 3-20) are all from a region dominated now or formerly by a powerful group of Bantus known among themselves as Bushongo and to their neighbours as Bakuba. The tribes concerned are located on or near the lower reaches of the Kasai and Sankuru rivers, which together with their tributaries form the great southwestern affluent of the Congo. The UNIVERSITY MUSEUM has a number of objects from this region, several of which have been published in previous issues of the JOURNAL.37

Figs. 5 and 6 are two views of a Bushongo cup or goblet. It is said to have been used in the poison ordeal which is practised by these people in common with many other African tribes, both those called Bantus of the peninsular portion of Africa and the purer negroes to the north and northwest. It was, and no doubt still is when the attention of European officials can be evaded, practised, as we have seen, by the Bini. It has been reported from many other negro groups of the Guinea coast and the country inland, its use is general throughout the Congo region, and common in the lands to the north, east, and south of the latter. It is most commonly employed in the process of witch finding, though its application to the conviction of other criminals, especially thieves and murderers, is not unusual. Wherever this kind of ordeal is employed the belief obtains that there is no such form of death as we call natural but that all persons who die otherwise than through some such special act of supernatural power as a stroke of lightning, or in battle, have been done to death by witchcraft. The sorcerer is thus guilty of at least two crimes—the practice of illicit as distinct from official magic, and murder; in cases where he is believed to have stolen the soul of the deceased, he may be convicted by the poison ordeal of three crimes at once.

Front and side views of two wood cups, each with a mirroed full head and face carved on opposite sides with two openings at the top
11, 12, 13, 14 – Two Kasai Cups
Image Numbers: 897, 898, 906, 907

This ordeal as practised by the Bushongo is described by Tor-day38 as follows: “When a person dies a natural death or without evident cause, his death is attributed to an evil spirit acting through the intermediary of another person who is possessed, sometimes without knowing it, by the evil spirit. These demoniacs must submit to the ordeal by poison, which is prepared and administered by a special personage called Nyimi Shake among the Bambala and Miseke among the Bangongo.” The Bambala and the Bangongo are subtribes of the Bushongo, the Bambala being the ruling group. “In the west, if the individual succumbs to the poison, or if it is eliminated in the course of nature, he is declared guilty, and in the latter case is lynched by the mob. . . . On the other hand, if the accused vomits the poison he is declared innocent and the accuser pays him an indemnity of three or four thousand cowries. . . . In the east [i. e. among the Bangongo], if someone dies a natural death and the causes of his decease are not too apparent, his brother often accuses someone in the village, most often an old man or woman, of being Boloki, possessed by a demon, and of having by this fact caused the death of his relative. In this case, the official called Miseke is required to subject the accused to the ordeal by poison. This poison . . . is extracted by the Miseke from the bark of a plant called Ephumi . . . A cup of poison being offered to the accused, he says: ‘If I have killed So and So [repeated thrice], may you kill me (he claps his hands thrice), but if I am innocent, prove it.39 Then he empties the cup and makes for the bush, followed by the whole village. The friends and relations of the deceased shout: ‘You have killed So and So [repeated once], and you will die!’ The friends of the accused shout to him: ‘Show that you are innocent, show that you are innocent!’ The Miseke runs beside the fugitive and, striking him on the head with a child’s rattle, keeps repeating: ‘Ephumi, Ephumi, kill the Boloki.’ If the accused has an attack of vomiting, his innocence is considered proved, the accuser must pay him several thousand cowries in damages, and he is congratulated on having escaped the danger. On the other hand, if vomiting is not brought on, the accused dies and thus his guilt is proved.”

The writer adds here that the Bakongo, a related tribe whose territory lies west of the Bushongo’s and to whom we shall have occasion to refer again, also practised the ordeal by poison. In the MUSEUM JOURNAL, Vol. X, Fig. 33, the second object from the right is a Bakongo vessel in the form of a woman, which was employed in the ordeal, according to a note by Mr. Torday, who obtained this cup in the Bakongo country.

The Bakongo, says Torday, called the drug they used epomi, which is evidently another form of the name ephumi applied by the Bushongo to the plant from which they obtained their drug. This plant, so far as can be gathered from the account just quoted, has not been identified as belonging to any known species. The sass-wood, Erythrophloeum guiniense, which was used in ordeals in Benin, was in general use also in the rest of Guinea, in the Zambezi region, in that of Lake Nyassa, and in southeastern Africa generally.1 Sir Harry Johnston, on whose authority this statement is made, believes that the poison of the Congo “with the doubtful exception of the coast region,” is obtained not from the sasswood but from several different species of Strychnos.40 But there can be no doubt that sasswood, whether indigenous to any part of the region or not, is used in the interior Congo, in the same general region with which we are here concerned. The poison used in the ordeal by the Bambala on the Kwilu river has been identified by competent authority as the bark of the sasswood, obtained in trade from the mouth of the Kwango, a stream of which the Kwilu is an affluent and which itself joins the Kasai a short distance above the confluence of the latter with the Congo. A poison with the same native name as that used by the Bambala is employed by the Bayaka further to the south. This also is stated to be sasswood.41

According to a writer in Annales du Musée du Congo,42 there are various sources of the poison used in this ordeal in the Congo—the root of a Strychnos, the sap of certain euphorbias, and a decoction made from ants. The bark of an acacia, which he also brings into this list, is specified in another passage as being the source of a preparation used in an eye ordeal.

The cup or goblet, Figs. 5 and 6, shows by the wear and polish of its exterior that it has been long in use. The red tint which appears especially in the incisions of the carving and wherever else, especially the under surface of the base or foot, the polish acquired through much handling is less apparent, is due to rubbing with a pigment made from powdered wood. The wood used is that of the camwood (Baphia).

The wood itself, or its bark, according to Johnston, is reduced to powder by being moistened and rubbed against a stone. The powder is made into a paste through mixture with palm oil. The camwood does not grow in the Bushongo country, but is imported from the east. The Bushongo have a proverb which declares that “the day will never come when the Chale (Sankuru River) will refuse us tukula and the Luefo (Kasai) salt.” The pigment is of a crimson colour and is chiefly used in the adornment of their bodies. Speaking of another group of Congo people Johnston says: “It is really a pleasure to one’s colour-sense to see [them], nearly naked and painted a dull dry crimson (deep rose colour) from head to foot, emerging from the dark forest background on to a river shore of golden sand above a reflected sky of deep grey-blue.” The Bushongo wear more clothes than these people, whose country is further north, but among the former the torso is commonly nude and smeared with tukula paste. The pigment, as we have seen, is also applied to some of their woodcarvings. The wooden portrait statue43 of Shamba Bolongongo, ninety third in the list of Bushongo kings, who is believed to have flourished in the seventeenth century, which is now in the British Museum, was polished with tukula paste. It is used also for dyeing or staining cloth. Its use for painting the bodies of the dead in preparation for burial may perhaps have lent it a magical significance which would make it fitting for application to a goblet like this, the vehicle of death. The Bangendi, a sub-tribe of the Bushongo, abstain from the use of this favourite cosmetic during the period of mourning. The paste is kept in special boxes, several of which may be seen in the MUSEUM; the cakes into which it is formed for preservation are carved into small models of human heads and of implements such as axes or spears, and presented by the heir of a deceased person to the other relatives as mementoes of the departed. The carving of these tukula blocks is the work of women, curiously enough, since wood sculpture in general is in the hands of the men. The woodcarver’s craft is so highly esteemed that at the court of the Nyimi or king of the Bushongo its representative takes precedence of the representatives of all other crafts.

For woodcarving a special knife is used having a handle long enough for its butt to rest in and be supported by the angle which the bent forearm makes with the upper. This would have the effect of making the blade practically unitary with the directing hand, giving greater firmness and decision to movements of the edge or point of the blade.44

The cup in question is said not only to have been used in the Bushongo ordeal by poison but to have been the property of a chief. The latter claim is strengthened by the fact that the principal band of decoration encircling the cup on each side of the human face which occupies, from ear to ear, more than one-third of the periphery is a modification of the pattern known to the Bushongo as Mikope Ngoma, or the drums of Mikope. A note by Mr. Torday on another cup in the UNIVERSITY MUSEUM which bears a variety of this design states: “Mikope was the name of several kings of Bushongo and the pattern represents the sign-manual of one of them. Each king is supposed to invent a new pattern and this holds lieu of his signature.” Mr. Torday says elsewhere that the design was invented by this Nyimi or king of the Bushongo to serve as the decoration of the royal drums; since several varieties of Mikope Ngoma are known and since the design was devised to be thenceforward the distinctive mark of royal property, the words “new pattern” in Mr. Torday’s note must be taken to mean a new modification of the sign manual of the royal inventor. Also, since the functionary who administered the poison in a cup was a court official, as we are told and as in fact his title, Nyimi Shake, indicates, it is likely that this cup bearing the royal mark was indeed a royal cup used by a Nyimi Shake in the performance of his official duties.45

The carving of the vessel is rather carelessly executed. The Mikope pattern is carried up in an imperfect form behind, i.e. at a point opposite the middle of the forehead of the human face, where it appears in an irregular triangular space breaking into the band of ornament surrounding the goblet near the rim. This latter band is identical, or is intended to be so, with another encircling the foot of the goblet. Both are carelessly executed renderings of the design known to the Bambala as “the eye” and to the Bangongo as “wild pig’s back.”46

There is a resemblance in shape between the goblets of the Bushongo and their drums so close as to suggest the development of the latter from the former through enlargement and the attachment of a drumhead. But the resemblance is probably in fact due merely to the borrowing for one hollowed wooden object, the drum, of a form found pleasing in the case of another whose general type was not necessarily the earlier invention. Appropriately enough, considering the design which forms the principal feature of its conventional decoration, this cup is almost identical in shape with a Bushongo drum figured on page 91 of Torday and Joyce’s book.

The simplification of the lines of the face represented in relief on this cup, together with the slipshod rendering of the designs which accompany it, seems to mark the cup as the production of an inferior workman. But it is more likely to have been a question of haste due to some urgent occasion. That the carving was hastily carried out is obvious; one has only to look at the few hurried strokes and incisions which outline the mere sketch of features in the triangular area of the face in order to be sure of that. But one may question whether a man who had not the conventions of his craft in the very skin of his fingers could have dashed off the sketch with such certainty and have reached so characteristic an effect as we have here. Perhaps a Nyimi Shake found that he had mislaid or broken his cup on being suddenly required to conduct an ordeal at short notice, summoned a woodcarver, and issued pressing orders. Once used and the emergency thus successfully met, the cup would be employed again and again, as this one indeed evidently has been, if Departmental human nature is the same in the Kasai as it is in other parts of the world. Probably it is, only rather more so.

An especially remarkable feature of primitive art, and one which is peculiarly noticeable in the work of negro craftsmen, is the clinging to realism accompanied by a strong tendency to conventionalize natural forms. Perhaps in the case of the negro this apparently paradoxical alliance of tendencies may be due to a combination of an infinite incapacity for taking pains with excellent powers of observation. The difficulty of translating what is acutely observed into a fully illusory picture of reality—an aim which is always obviously before his mind—is not so much met as evaded by a process of simplification in which salient characters are retained stripped of confusing detail and relations. In such a process stylisation will necessarily go far and will even become an end in itself, giving rise to that peculiarly decorative appearance which is the especially attractive aspect of negro wood and ivory sculpture.

The observation of the close alliance of curves, ridges and hollows in which in the topography of the human face brows and nose and eyes are linked leads to a unitary treatment of these features with a ruthless shearing away of details which is just as remarkable in the crude sketch of Figs. 5 and 6 as in the finished work of Fig. 7. In either case the combination of triangle and double ellipse is quite as stylistic as any similar element in a geometrical pattern might be.

In the case of Fig. 11, a goblet with a Januslike combination of heads, the unitary conception of this group of features differs from that exemplified in Fig. 7 in the flattening of the ridge which marks the eyebrows, a similar flattening of the bridge and a marked prominence of the tip of the nose, together with a sinking of two small holes in the horizontal under surface of that feature to represent nostrils. These last two concessions to realism are matched in the case of Fig. 7 by a ridge left across the corresponding horizontal surface to represent the edge of the septum. The contours in the case of Fig. 11 are more graceful and pleasing, though not executed with quite so much precision, as those of the other cup. The same thing is true, in fact, of the lines of the two cups in general.

The small cup, Figs. 9 and 10, which resembles Fig. 11 in the general lightness and grace of its outlines, while the general plan of grouping features is the same, offers a striking contrast to the other two just dealt with in the remarkable realism of the nose with its long spine slightly flattened below between the prominent flaring widely opened nostrils. Here is clearly a new appeal to nature. The realist has triumphed for a moment over the pattern maker. The eyes are conventional enough, in a slightly divergent convention. The curve of the eyebrow is an incised line, not a ridge, and this line is repeated below to define with greater emphasis the lower boundary of the hollow of the orbit.

While, in the case of the small cup, Figs. 18 and 19, the treatment of the eyebrows as a bifurcation of the ridge representing the nose is only slightly less conventional in showing a slight depression at the fork, the rendering of the eyes is much more realistic. These are as markedly almondshaped as those of Fig. 11, but while in the latter they appear only as a more elegant variety of the same design in Fig. 7, here the heavy drooping upper lids are strongly differentiated as in nature from the narrow ridges which mark the lower. The slight break in continuity of the line of nose and brows which this face shows is much more marked in the case of one of the three Januslike cups in this group, Figs. 15-17. Here there is a sharp break in continuity between the broad triangular recurved lump of the nose, with its not very well defined central ridge, and the strongly defined ridge of the brows.

Two side views and a front view of a mirrored wood face cup, and the front and back view of a cup with a face on one side and a handle at the back
15, 16, 17, 18, 19 – Two Kasai Cups. The head in the middle is a front view of the Cup of which two side views are shown above.
Museum Object Number: AF1948
Image Numbers: 896, 900, 910, 911

The faces on this cup, which was collected by Mr. Torday in the Bashilele-Bakongo country, have a strong resemblance to a mask in the UNIVERSITY MUSEUM which was published in the JOURNAL, Vol. X, Fig. 32, p. 92, and was further discussed in Vol. XIV, p. 78. The mask is from the Bapindi or Bapende and is one of the most remarkably realistic examples of authentically negro wood sculpture in existence. The resemblance is not confined to the features referred to in the last paragraph, but extends to the peculiarly bulbous forehead, and even to the shape of the neck not excluding the extension of the latter downwards into a wedge shaped base which forms the foot of the goblet in Figs. 15-17.

The Bapende are southwestern neighbours of the Bakongo, of whom the Bashilele, according to Torday,47 now form a part, these two tribes having formed the vanguard of the migrations from the north which brought the Bushongo to rule the country they now occupy. The Bakongo-Bashilele are, however, independent of Bushongo rule. The Bapende, on the other hand, are migrants from the south, from the borders of the old Lunda empire, and the custom of artificial deformation of the head which obtains, or until lately obtained, among the Balunda, is, it would seem, embalmed in the peculiar form given to the forehead of this cup and this mask; unless, indeed, both cup and mask, as well as the southern custom which they recall are to be regarded as reminiscences of some actual hydrocephalous prototype among the rulers of the southern lands formerly included in the Lunda empire. We learn from Torday48 that double-headed cups are especially characteristic of the Bakongo; but if the cup, Fig. 15, is the production of a Bashilele or Bakongo workman, and not an importation from the Bapende country, it is certainly the result of the copying of Bapende models. The same is true to a less marked degree of the small cup, Figs. 18 and 19, which is probably of Bakongo origin. The influence of the Bapende on Bakongo and Bushongo industry is clear both from tradition and from recent observation and information.49

A very curious cup, Fig. 20, collected by Torday from the Bapende, which represents a complete human figure standing on bent legs in an attitude which is typical of so many Congo figurines that it must correspond to a normal racial character of the negroes of that region, shows the same bulbous forehead, the same heavy eyebrows, and the same shape of the ears as Figs. 15-17. The nose is more realistic than in the case of any of the other cups, except Fig. 9, which closely resembles it in the rendering of this feature, save that in Fig. 20 it is flatter and broader in the bridge. Fig. 9 is said to be of Bashilele origin, though the mode of hairdressing represented is typically Bakongo. The relations between these two groups of people is so close that there is no reason to doubt that a Bashilele woodcarver may have intended to portray in this graceful little vessel a Bakongo type, or that a cup of Bakongo workmanship may have been found among the Bashilele. Fig. 7, which was taken to exemplify the most typically conventionalized form of eyes and nose represented among these cups, shows like Fig. 10, as also do the jugated heads of Fig. 14, the shaven triangular area above the ear which is characteristic of the Bakongo. The cup of Figs. 9 and 10 is said to have been collected among the Bashilele and that of Figs. 13 and 14 among the Bakongo.

This Bakongo fashion of modifying the normal line of implantation of the hair is reported to have been influenced by the wish to imitate the scalloped line of the brim of the Bushongo cap, which itself was probably devised in imitation of the pattern formed by the line of implantation showing through the skin after the shaving of the head. Torday describes the custom of the Bambala, the head tribe of the Bushongo, as follows: “The men shave the whole head, keeping on the top of the skull only a small tuft of hair just large enough to be hidden by the headdress [i. e. cap]; the temples and forehead are carefully shaved, but the line of implantation of the hair can nevertheless be distinguished and this line is indicated on the [heads of the] dolls and on the carvings, as, for example, on the statues of the kings.” The women also shave their heads.50

In most cases the closely matted, crinkled quality of negro hair is represented on the cups by a deeply incised crosshatching. The poison cup, Figs. 5 and 6, and the legged cup, Fig. 20, are exceptions. In the case of the former only the outline of the hair on the forehead is shown; the sharply retreating triangular areas at each side of the forehead are too far forward to be an indication of the Bakongo fashion. They simply represent a conventionalized rendering of the natural line of growth of the hair on the temples. In the case of Fig. 20 no attempt has been made to represent the hair.

The Bakongo and the Bashilele shave close the border of the hairy area, and just above this keep the hair short. The shaven border is probably represented in Figs. 7-19 by the single, double, or triple line which bounds the crosshatched area. The extra scallops seen in the side view, Fig. 12, are simply a decorative repetition of the first on each side.

In the case of the small cup, Fig. 18, it is possible that two influences may have combined to bring about the multiplication of these bounding lines or ridges. It is easy to see how the desire for an increased decorative effect could have led in the other cases to a duplication of the single ridges which, as in Figs. 7 and 9, are all that is necessary for a mere indication of the shaven zone. If the desire for an enhancement of the decoration provided by the ridge led to its duplication it may of course just as easily have led to its triplication. But, on the other hand, the central part of the decoration, if it is purely such in intention, is repeated in three independent chevrons above the forehead, crowding out the crosshatching in that area, and leaving a small triangular undecorated space just below the rim of the cup. When this apparently purposeless additional repetition of the bounding ridges is considered in connection with the ridges representing cicatrization on the forehead, immediately above the brows, of Fig. 20, there is some reason for thinking that the multiplication of similarly shaped contours on an object which in its general style already suggests imitation of a Bapende model may also be due to copying, perhaps misunderstanding at the same time of the device copied, of another Bapende peculiarity.

There is much variety in the hairdressing fashions of this region, and apart from certain well-defined modes like the Bakongo shaven triangle above the ears, many of the variations seem to be due only to individual caprice. Among several tribes a favourite means of securing the decorative effect aimed at is shaving other portions of the scalp than those already mentioned, forming various combinations of strips of bare scalp and tufts of wool alternately. Perhaps the two crosshatched triangles at the back of the head of Fig. 19 separated by undecorated flat raised bands from each other and from the remainder of the crosshatched area are an imitation of some such fashion in hairdressing, though the evident predilection of the woodcarver in this instance for decorative effects as such makes it doubtful whether he was not simply concerned with the ornamentation of the spaces at his disposal without any reference to reality. The odds in favour of the probability of this view are increased by an examination of the wooden vase, Figs. 3 and 4, on which are to be seen crosshatched triangles alternating with others filled with the same bisected rhombs as occupy the outer surface of the flat vertical middle portion of the handle of Fig. 19. Probably the same aversion from empty spaces, or from spaces monotonously filled, led to the carving on the back of the head shown in Fig. 10 of a closed guilloche resembling a favourite design of the Bushongo, known to them as namba, the knot. This design is not confined to woodcarving but is fairly common in the region in body cicatrization, or skincarving. The forming of cicatrized designs on the hairy scalp is not practised, so far as I know; but the use of this design in body cicatrizing might easily suggest its application to the representation of a human head. No facts of which I am aware suggest that it might have, in a position so nearly the same as the loop and coil ornament on the Benin heads, any symbolic or fetish significance. The bisected lozenge or rhomb of Figs. 19 and 3, which occurs again in a band encircling the common neck of the jugated heads of Fig. 12, is, according to Torday and Joyce, derived from an ornament based on the markings of the carapace of a tortoise.51

The raised (Figs. 11-18) or incised (Fig. 10) circular cicatrices on the temples of these heads may, like the Bini forehead scars, be regarded, as they are by at any rate some of the tribes which wear them, as tribal marks, though they are not always in fact distinctive, being worn by numerous groups of people in the Congo area. It is doubtful whether they appear as single marks among the Bushongo, though two of the subtribes are said to have groups of three circles on each temple. Torday’s language52 in describing these face cicatrizations is not quite clear, however, though it appears that the figure three given in his account denotes the number of concentric rings in one circle. In Fig. 18, for example, each temple shows, partly countersunk in a depression, three concentric rings about a small central boss. In view of the fact that the outline of the hair or coiffure in this example closely resembles the shape of the brim of the Bushongo cap, it is even possible that this is a Bushongo vessel, though it is, I think, more likely, having regard to its general style, and the treatment of the mouth with the teeth brought into prominence, to be a Bakongo product, like Fig. 13, which it resembles in this last particular.

The description given by Torday of the Bakongo type of face markings is not more clear than his notes on the Bushongo fashion: “Sometimes also two concentric circles are found on each temple, though a double row of from eight to ten lozenges running back from the corner of the eye is more usual.”<53 While a Bushongo (Bambala) cup figured by Torday and Joyce shows a group of three round buttons on the temple,54 five Bakongo cups55 have a single prominent round button marked with two or more concentric rings in the same position. This seems to indicate that Torday does not mean the same thing in the two passages. A photograph of a Bakongo woman published by him in the MUSEUM JOURNAL56 shows a single large raised circular scar forward of the left ear, the figure being in profile. On the other hand, Fig. 200 in Les Bushongo, which is a sketch of the face markings of a Bangongo (Bushongo) woman, depicts a similar temple marking consisting of a single figure made up of three concentric circles. Probably the truth is that there are individual differences in the two groups of people with regard to the number of circular scars worn, but that the prevailing custom among the Bakongo is to wear a single circular raised scar made up of concentric rings on each temple.

Fig. 14, a side view of a Bakongo cup, shows temple markings which are a combination of the two devices mentioned for the Bakongo, a double row of scars in a straight line and a button marked with concentric rings. Only the former design appears on the temples in the case of the Bashilele vessel, Figs. 7 and 8, which is very nearly identical with another Bashilele cup figured by Torday and Joyce in Les Bushongo, Fig. 290. But neither can this device of a double line of cicatrices between eye and ear be definitely localized as a peculiarity of one group. The Bangendi, a subtribe of the Bushongo, also wear it.57

Until the time of Torday’s visit twenty years ago the Bushongo were very unwilling to admit white men into their country; and he found it impossible to penetrate the interior of Bakongo territory. This hostility was largely due to the position of these tribes as middlemen, a profitable occupation which they were unwilling that strangers should usurp or share. This community of interests explains the ready transmission of fashions and material objects from one group to another. In many cases it would not be possible without some original data concerning the provenience of a particular object to assign it to any one of these groups as its originator. Even with such data it might happen that a cup, for example, found among the Bashilele had been made by a Bakongo or by a Bushongo workman, or that its decoration had been designed by a Bashilele workman in imitation of a Bushongo product. In the matter of wooden cups, however, this is less likely to be the case than in that of some other industrial products, since the Bashilele and Bakongo are almost as remarkable for the turning out of artistic examples of these vessels as are the Bushongo.

Bapende style, as we have seen, has earmarks all its own; and when a cup like Fig. 20 collected in the region by Torday himself is called by him Bapende and bears upon itself a peculiarity which, in addition to those adduced before, we know to be Bapende, the identification is practically as certain as if the explorer had seen the workman in the act of making the vessel. This peculiarity is also one which enables us to determine as female the sex of the figure represented. It is, in fact, the only one of the cups in the group which has any such undoubted distinguishing mark. The three parallel ridges bounding the lower edge of what might be called the barrel of the cup represent an important feature in the body markings of Bapende women, which, according to Torday, has been borrowed by the women of their Bakongo neighbours. This feature consists of a certain number of parallel horizontal incisions across the lower part of the abdomen.58

Torday gives some further slight description of Bapende fashions in cicatrization. He says that the tribal mark, worn, presumably, on the temples, consists of “a small circle in relief of about five to ten centimetres in diameter.” “Centimetres” is perhaps a slip of the pen for “millimetres”: a circle of from two to four inches in diameter in that position could hardly be called small; indeed there would not be room at all for one of the larger dimensions stated. Yet it seems fairly certain from Torday’s manner of expressing himself elsewhere that when he refers to tribal marks without specifying their location he intends it to be understood that they are on the temples. Now Fig. 20 shows a row of serrations on each temple, consisting of five elements for the right temple and four for the left. The extreme forward element in each case is set off by a slight interval from the others and it is roughly circular. We have seen a similar combination of straight line and circle in the temple markings on the Bakongo cup, Fig. 14. Here again Bapende influence has apparently made itself felt among the Bakongo. The five double curves of the frontal cicatrization following the curves of the eyebrows and the single vertical mark down the middle of the forehead above are not mentioned by Torday, who, however, makes no claim to intimate or extended acquaintance with the Bapende. This form of forehead cicatrization recalls a design employed by the Bapoto in the northern Congo.59

The Bapende mask previously referred to has a rather formless knob at each outer edge on a level with the eyebrows. These knobs are evidently intended for ears. Below each in strong relief are two or three curved ridges. There was evidently great variety in the face markings of the Bapende.

Torday says60 that the Bakongo women adorn their necks with cicatrices. The same remark would probably apply to the Bashilele, considering the close relations which obtain between these two groups. The Bashilele cup, Figs. 7 and 8, and the one figured by Tor-day on page 200 of Les Bushongo, Fig. 290d, as well as the Bakongo or Bashilele example with Bapende features which appears here as Figs. 15-17, all have the same type of cicatrices on the neck, namely squares or lozenges made up of a number of small scars. The same device appears among the Bushongo as a woman’s mark, known as Ibushi,61 though it is not confined to the neck. Two sketches of a Bushongo (Bangongo) woman, Figs. 200 and 201 in Les Bushongo, show Ibushi both on the neck and on the lower part of the abdomen. It is possible that among the Bashilele and Bakongo it may have been also a woman’s mark, when applied to the neck. Not otherwise, for a Bakongo cup having the form of a man bears this ornament in a prominent position on the front of the body. On the other hand, a similar cup in the UNIVERSITY MUSEUM, the poison cup of the Bakongo which has been referred to more than once, and which represents a woman, has analogous markings on the back of the neck as well as on the body. There is thus a possibility that Figs. 7 and 15 here may represent women’s heads.

The band imitating a woven design across the back of Fig. 20 probably is intended to imitate a palm cloth belt or loin cloth. It stops at the back of the arms because it would not be convenient—for the woodcarver—to carry it round in front.

The imitation of a basket weave on the base of the cup, Figs. 15-17, is probably simply decorative in intention and without relation to any design found in skin carving.

Front and two side views of a carved wood cup with a face and hands on the front of its cylindrical body, and is standing on two legs
20 – A Bapende Cup.
Museum Object Number: AF1953
Image Number: 901, 902, 903

The rings carved about the neck in the case of Figs. 9-12, and 18 seem to be intended to represent necklaces. Torday figures several Bakongo women wearing one or two strands of fairly close fitting cord about the neck, though none of them has several rings as in the case of two of these cups. Other woodcarvings imitating the human form show the same repetition of these carved rings. On one such, a Bushongo (Bambala) ceremonial adze handle,62 two of the spaces between the rings have punctuate markings which must be intended to represent beads. There is no record so far as I know of continuous circular ridges being cut in the skin of the neck. Torday in one passage speaks of scars on the necks of Bushongo women “simulating a necklace,”63 but this presumably refers to various linear designs of a more complex nature. The band of what is said to be, in Bushongo ornamentation, a derivative of tortoise markings, which appears on the neck of the cup in Figs. 11 and 12 may be an example of such a scar necklace. This design appears also on the neck of a degenerated representation of a human figure into which a Bakongo ceremonial adze handle has been shaped.64 The cup is a Bashilele or Bakongo production.

The countersunk button which shows on the throat in Figs. 9 and 10, also a Bashilele or Bakongo vessel, may, if the rings represent a real necklace, be an ornament forming a part of the latter. It is not likely that it represents a cicatrice, though analogy with the temple markings on the same cup certainly suggests this explanation. Two cups, in good Bushongo style, resembling the Bushongo cup which was published in Vol. XIV of the MUSEUM JOURNAL, Figs. 21 and 22, show similar protuberances on the throat. In one case there is a series of carved rings about the neck of the personage represented, from one of which directly, and not interrupting its continuity as does the button of Fig. 9, springs a digitlike protuberance. The neck of the other is surrounded by a single ring in high relief which obviously imitates a sharpridged metal neck ring opening in front and having the ends marked as two conical prominences. This seems to indicate Clearly enough both the nature of the carved rings on all these cups as imitations of real necklaces or neckrings and of the button of Fig. 9 as intended to represent a part of such a neck ornament. The two cups referred to are in the Berlin Ethnological Museum. They are attributed to the Basongo Meno, north of the Bushongo on the other side of the Kasai-Sunkuru river, and were published by Frobenius ten years before his own visit to that region.65

The three human heads on the remaining goblet, Figs. 3 and 4, form no structural part of the vessel as do the human forms in the case of the other vessels pictured here. They are merely stuck on, so to speak, and. are quite extraneous to the rest of the scheme of decoration. Possibly the four legs inserted between the base and the body of the goblet may be degenerated representations of human legs. They carry a certain suggestion of the convention according to which the leg is represented in some parts of the Congo. The cup, in its graceful outlines and in certain features of its decoration, closely resembles a cup published by Frobenius66 together with those to which reference has just been made. The Berlin cup is said to come from the Baluba, a large and important group of people who are the southern neighbours of the tribes with which we have been principally concerned here. The completely different style of the heads on the cup in Figs. 3 and 4 from that of those we have been considering is favourable also to its attribution to the Baluba. The cup comes to us with no indication of its origin.

In one not unimportant particular, however, it resembles one of the best known and finest examples of Bushongo craftsmanship. This is a Bangongo wooden cup of considerable age, a drawing of which is published as Fig. 308 in Les Bushongo. The rim bears representations of an insect which is a common motif in Bushongo woodcarving. The representations of this Head of God, as it is called, are placed in two positions, inverted with regard to each other, so that when the cup is raised to the lips and inverted in the act of drinking, one of the heads appears to the eyes of the drinker in the same aspect as do the other heads when the cup is standing on its base. It will be seen that the same device has been used in the case of the small bearded heads of Figs. 3 and 4. The conventional decoration of this cup has already been referred to; it might have been executed by any of the northern tribes between the Kasai and the Loange of the Bakongo.

The simple application of a mask in high relief as in this case, or in relief so low that it scarcely affects the outlines of the cup on which it is carved as in Fig. 6, the poison cup which was the first dealt with among these wooden vessels, can be traced in their structure as the origin of each of the examples figured here, with the possible exception of Fig. 9.

The illusion, which is undoubtedly striven for, of a head as a plastically complete whole is certainly not achieved in the case of Fig. 18, which is simply a mask to which a rounded back has been added. The same is true of Fig. 7, though the bounding lines of the mask have been to some extent obliterated by a rounding of them off into the under surfaces of the lower jaw. But this is a makeshift procedure, the mask is distinctly felt as plastered on, so to speak, to a rounded form predetermined by the nature of the vessel and the form of the cylinder of wood from which the vessel is carved. If this is so in the case of the single heads, the conditions imposed by the combining of two heads into a Januslike form necessarily make this state of things only more conspicuously evident. The faces in Figs. 11 and 12 are so little unitary with the whole quite graceful and well proportioned form turned out by the woodcarver that, taking even a front view of either of them, one has the impression that the face could be lifted up and off. This is only slightly less the case with the cup, Figs. 15-17. And this illusion directly contradictory to the realism which is apparently aimed at is, it would seem deliberately and paradoxically, enhanced by the formal treatment of the ears, which is most marked in Fig. 11, but which in Figs. 7, 17, and 14 also is calculated to define and accentuate by emphasizing the rearward delimitation of the masklike surface. Even in the case of Fig. 14, the least authentically traditional in manner of these carvings, the ears give the final touch to the impression of a pair of masks moulded on a neutral backing which is without realistic significance. It is, of course, in the only full length figure, Fig. 20, that the play of the fantasy in plastering human attributes on to, in this case, a barrel rather than a vase shaped object, is most plainly seen. But even in the most realistically treated example, Fig. 9, we have what is still essentially a vase decorated with a conventionalized human face rather than one effectively disguised as a human head.

In an essay on the plastic art of the negro the German critic Carl Einstein67 defines “frontality” as a painter’s conception of the stereoscopic, in which the three dimensional is summarized in one plane, the parts of objects nearer to the observer being emphasized and the rest treated as accompanying modifications of these prominent surfaces. In the successive preoccupation of artists, including sculptors, with this method of presenting reality and with another involving the conception of “plasticity,” in the practice of which sculpture was to be regarded as the transcription of a psychic effect on the spectator, the presupposition of plastic art, truly so called, namely the cubism of space, was forgotten. Then, we are further told, the plastic art of the negro was discovered and it came to be recognized that it alone has produced sheer plastic form. The negro artist, it is said, expresses as form not simply the spatial but the three-dimensional, in which depth is not merely suggested, as in the painter’s method which is based on a conception of frontality, but presented directly as form, i. e. the complete identity between appearance and individual realization.

It is rather doubtful perhaps whether the critics of this school do not attribute to the negro craftsman an acquaintance, instinctive and inarticulate, it is to be supposed, with a mysterious principle in art which has in fact remained mysterious to the critics themselves. At least this much is clear from the summary just given, that from the heresy involved in a “frontal” conception of reality the negro artist is to be absolved. Yet, to judge from these cups, all brought from a region where at the time of their manufacture any European contamination was out of the question, their makers must have invented this conception in the very heart of Africa, and pushed the practices involved to lengths which would put the most heretical of western sculptors to the blush.

1 MUSEUM JOURNAL, Vol. XIII, p. 153.

2 Loc. cit., fig. 46.

3 JOURNAL, fig. 49 and pp. 129 and 168.

4 Quoted by J. Marquart, Die Benin-Sammlung des Reichsmuseums fur Völkerkunde in Leiden, Leiden, 1913. P. XIV.

5 N. W. Thomas, Edo Burial Customs, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol. L (1920), p. 383.

6 R. E. Dennet, At the Back of the Black Man’s Mind, p. 191.

7 Ling Roth, Great Benin, quoting C. PUnch. P. 88.

8 Op. cit. (C. Punch), p. 57.

9 Birth Customs, Journal of the Royal Anthroplogical Institute, Vol. LII, pp. 257, 258.

10 Loc. cit., fig. 86.

11 N. W. Thomas, Edo Burial Customs, p. 383.

12 Loc. cit.

13 P. 382.

14 MUSEUM JOURNAL, Vol. III, p. 80.

15 Quoted by H. L. Roth, Great Benin, pp. 168-169.

16 Great Benin, p. 77. Cf. p. 75.

17 Op. cit., p. 59.

18 Loc. cit.

19 Op. cit. Landolphe (18th century). Pp. 42, 43.

20 N. W. Thomas, The Edo-Speaking Peoples, I, p. 31.

21 At the Back of the Black Man’s Mind, pp. 219-223.

22 Op. cit., pp. 24, 26.

23 P. Bouche, La Côte des Esclaves et le Dahomey, p. 396.

24 E. Foa, Le Dahomey, p. 131.

25 Marquart, op. cit., p. xvi.

26 Antiquities from Benin, Plate X, Fig. 1; Antique Works of Art from Benin, Plate VIII, Figs. 45 and 46; Great Benin, pp. 219 and 220.

27 Great Benin, fig. 97.

28 MUSEUM JOURNAL, Vol. XIII, Figs. 37 and 38.

29 Letter published in William Bosman’s Description of the Coast of Guinea, English translatioin, London, 1705, p. 440.

30 Ling Roth, p. 170; cf. p. 168.

31 Quoted by Ling Roth, p. 19. For D. R.’s sketches. see p. 18.

32 Cf. MUSEUM JOURNAL, Vol. III (1912), Fig. 41.

33 C. Punch, quoted by Ling Roth, p. 12.

34 J. Barbot, A Description of the Coasts of South Guinea, in Churchill’s Voyages and Travels, V, p. 361. London, 1732.

35 Ling Roth, p. 49.

36 Edo-Speaking Peoples, I, p. 114

37 Vol. IV, pp. 13ff.; Vol. X, pp. 87-99; Vol. XI, No. 1; Vol. XIV, p. 48, pp. 103ff.

38 E. Torday and T. A. Joyce, Les Bushongo, pp. 78-79.

39 Sir H. H. Johnston, George Grenfell and the Congo, II, p. 689, footnote.

40 Loc. cit.

41 Torday and Joyce, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, XXXV (1905), p. 416, footnote; XXXVI (1906), p. 49.

42 Series 3, Vol. I, Notes analytiques, pp. 189, 190.

43 Les Bushongo, Plate I.

44 H. H. Johnston, op. cit. II, pp. 560, 561; E. Torday and T. A. Joyce, Les Bushongo, pp. 92, 127, 129, 140, 175, 191, 192, 205, 206; T. A. Joyce in Man, 1910, p. 2.

45 Les Bushongo, pp. 54, 221, 222.

46 Les Bushongo, p. 227.

47 Les Bushongo, pp. 46, 47, 11.

48 P. 205.

49 MUSEUM JOURNAL, Vol. XIV, p. 78; Torday and Joyce, Les Bushongo, passim, see index s. v. Bapende; T.A. Joyce, British Museum Handbook of the Ethnographical Collections, p. 216; Torday and Joyce, ON the Ethnology of the Congo Free State, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, XXXVII, 1907, pp. 141-143. See also the same authors’ Notes ethnographiques sur des populations habitant les bassins du Kasai et du Kwango oriental, Annales du Musée du Congo, Brussels, 1922.

50 Les Bushongo, pp. 49, 168. See also p. 169, Bashilele Bakongo

51 Les Bushongo, Fig. 305 and p. 212.

52 Op. cit., pp. 165, 166.

53 Les Bushongo, pp. 166-167.

54 Op. cit., fig. 289.

55 Op. cit., fig. 290.

56 Vol. IV, p. 20.

57 Les Bushongo, p. 165.

58 Les Bushongo, pp. 166-167, Fig. 390f; MUSEUM JOURNAL, Vol. X, Fig. 33; Torday and Joyce, Notes ethnographiques, etc., p. 324.

59 H. H. Johnston, op. cit., Fig. 292.

60 Les Bushonogo, p. 167.

61 Op. cit., fig. 207.

62 Les Bushongo, Fig. 292

63 P. 166.

64 Fig. 291

65 L. Frobenius, Internationales Archiv für Ethnographie, VII (1894), Figs. 72 and 74.

66 Fig. 70.

67 Negerplastik, Munch, 1920

Cite This Article

Hall, Henry Usher. "African Cups Embodying Human Forms." The Museum Journal XV, no. 3 (September, 1924): 190-227. Accessed July 15, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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