The Kuba, also called Bakuba, are a union of more than twenty ethnic groups Bantu-speaking in southeastern Democratic Republic of Congo (Kinshasa), living between the Kasai and Sankuru rivers east of their confluence. These groups including the:
Together these ethnic groups are known as the Kuba. This name was given to them by their southern neighbors, the Luba, and has been used since by Europeans. Traditionally, members of the Kuba Kingdom had no single ñame for themselves or their kingdom, but called themselves the "people of the king."
The many ethnic groups that make up the Kuba share some cultural values that set them apart from other neighboring peoples. For example, they all trace family relationships through the mother's side rather than the father's. A Kuba boy is considered to be more closely related to his mother's brother than to his own father. Traditionally, he lives with his mother and father until his father's death. Then he joins the village of his mother's brother.
But there are many differences between the various Kuba groups. In the past each Kuba group existed as a separate people. The dominant ethnic group in the región was the Bushongo.
The Bushongo, or more correctly the Bashi-Bushongo (meaning “people of the country of the throwing knife”) inhabit the district of the D.R Congo bounded on the north and east by the Sankurn river, on the west by the Kasai. The name by which they are generally known to Europeans is Bakuba.
Kuba people speak Bushong (Bushoong, Bushongo, Busoong, Shongo, Ganga, Kuba, Mbale, Bamongo, Mongo) language which belongs to Bantu language group of the Kasai region of Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Dialects are said to be Djembe, Ngende, Ngombe (Ngombia), Ngongo, Pianga (Panga, Tsobwa, Shobwa, Shoba). Pianga (Shuwa) is a distinct language, in the Tetela group.
The Bushong have a patron–client relationship with the Kasai Twa.
Kuba are part of the people that came to the Great Lake areas via the great Bantu migration from West Africa. The original Kuba migrated during the 16th century from the north to reach their current location at the Sankuru river. When they arrived, however, they found that the Twa already lived there. The Twa were eventually absorbed into the Kuba Kingdom, but retained some independent cultural characteristics. The height of the Kingdom was during the mid-19th century.
Europeans first reached the area in 1884, but the Kuba, being relatively isolated, were not as affected by the slave trade as many of the other peoples in the area. The Nsapo invaded during the late 19th century, and the Kingdom was broken up to a large extent.
Nineteen different ethnic groups including the Bushoong, Ngeende, Kel, Pyaang, Bulaang, Bieeng, Ilebo, Idiing, Kaam, Ngoombe Kayuweeng, Shoowa, Bokila, Maluk, and Ngongo formed the kingdom, which still exists and is presided over by the nyim, or king. The King of Kuba is always Bushoong. Each of the ethnic groups has a representative in residence at the Bushoong court.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Central African interior witnessed the florescence of three large-scale, multi-ethnic states. Imported crops and technologies as well as new models of leadership promoted strong, centralized governments that subdued neighboring chiefdoms and regulated trade routes, increasing the wealth and relative stability of the region. Client states, incorporated into these empires via warfare and strategic alliances, acquired the political systems and courtly traditions of their overlords. Art forms and insignia associated with imperial rule spread throughout the region.
Nestled in the fertile forest and savanna bordered by the Sankuru, Lulua, and Kasai rivers, the Kuba kingdom was a conglomerate of several smaller principalities of various ethnic origins.
Sometime around 1625, an outsider unseated a rival ruler and unified the area's chiefdoms under his leadership. This man was Shyaam a-Mbul a Ngoong-Shyaam "the Great." Kuba oral histories reveal that he was the adopted son of a local queen who left his home to travel to the Pende and Kongo kingdoms in the west.
Empowered by mystical knowledge of foreign customs and technologies, Shyaam became the architect of Kuba political, social, and economic life. Advanced techniques of iron production and crops from the Americas such as maize (corn), tobacco, cassava (manioc), and beans were introduced. The government was reorganized around a merit-based title system that dispersed power and promoted loyalty among the aristocracy.
The first explorer to discover the existence of the Kuba people and enter their kingdom was William Sheppard, a black American Presbyterian, in 1892. German explorers were the next to visit this kingdom between 1907-1909; they have gathered the most complete ethnographic history to date.
Their studies included that of the social, political, economic, and religious aspects of the Kuba culture (Washburn , 21). After the Kuba people were colonized, the art form began to change, it became less naturalistic and it began to disappear. Wood engravings began to match the new art forms that were influenced by the European settlers. More abstract art was being made to satisfy the European occupiers. Basketwork was no longer created like all of the other surrounding tribes; instead, they began to create baskets and containers like those of their European counterparts (Meurant , 116).
The weakened Kingdom never recovered, and it was fragmented into chiefdoms once again by the time of the area became a Belgian colony.
The current reigning monarch, Kot-a-Mbweeky III, has been on the throne since 1969.
Three ways the Kuba people gather and grow food include farming, hunting, and fishing. Both women and men are involved in farming. The women work on the plains by both planting and gathering; when they finish their work in the fields, they help the men in the forests. The society’s diet is mostly composed of vegetables. Meat is only eaten in the dry season because the men are able to hunt without the responsibilities of farming. Men trap animals in groups; trapping takes place in the brush. Fishers use both fixed and flying nets; their fishing status is determined by the danger in the water. Fish ponds are created and harvested by the women twice a year while streams are also used to gather small fish and mollusks (Meurant , 122). Because the tribe is located between three vast river systems, the Sankuru, Kasai, and Lulua, fishing is one of the ways that the Kuba people to build their economy (Cole , 381).
Kuba religion was focused on the King and all of the ceremonies and royal symbols show religious importance. Kings are very spiritual and they draw all of the Kuba tribes together (Leuchak, 19). The king is called ngesh or the nature spirit, he is always surrounded by his wives and servants. The mwaaddy or oldest son is enlightened of all the knowledge, stories, and rules by the highest ranked woman in court.
Seven creation stories are present within the Kuba culture; most believe in one or two gods possessing the nature spirit. Each village has a ngesh and a woman diviner communicates to the people through dreams.
She then tells the community how they can make up for the mistakes that they have made (Leuchak, 19). Burial ceremonies begin by dressing the body in many layers of different textiles, mostly composed of small squares of embroidered and raffia cloth.
While the funeral is occurring, the body is prepared for viewing by wrapping the textiles around the body; when this part of the ceremony is over, the body is placed in a large well decorated coffin made with a bamboo frame covered by decorated mats.
The shape of the coffin sometimes represents the form of the typical Kuba house with a pitched roof.
Items are then placed into the grave after the body is lowered; these may include drinking cups, textiles, costume decorations, and items that would be needed in the world of the dead (Cole ,389).
If a person was good, they become a ghost in the spirit world before they are reincarnated or reborn. The bad people must stay in limbo for eternity. The only way that problems can arise between the spirits and living is through witchcraft and sorcery (Leuchak, 21).
The first explorer to discover the existence of the Kuba people and enter their kingdom was William Sheppard, a black American Presbyterian, in 1892. German explorers were the next to visit this kingdom between 1907-1909; they have gathered the most complete ethnographic history to date. Their studies included that of the social, political, economic, and religious aspects of the Kuba culture (Washburn , 21). After the Kuba people were colonized, the art form began to change, it became less naturalistic and it began to disappear. Wood engravings began to match the new art forms that were influenced by the European settlers. More abstract art was being made to satisfy the European occupiers. Basketwork was no longer created like all of the other surrounding tribes; instead, they began to create baskets and containers like those of their European counterparts (Meurant , 116)
Palace Architecture: The Kuba made sure that all of their architecture was developed in proportions that were emphasized by horizontal lines. Some of the most recognized architecture within the Kuba kingdom lies in the capital city of Nsheng; this city was designed with a very precise layout in mind that looked back upon the importance of the horizontal line (Vasina , 223). Some of the most recognized architecture within the Kuba kingdom is found in the capital city of Nsheng; this city was laid out with a very precise layout in mind. One main axis defines most of the important social interactions that occur within the city; this happens on the path between the yoot, king’s residence, and the dweengy, the wives’ residence. This plan shows and describes special places within Nsheng such as the steps of a king’s enthronement as well as a place to recognize all of the children that have died (Cole, 385).
Typical Architecture: All of the buildings are rectangular and have pitched roofs; the size and patterns on the exterior of these buildings determines the occupant and their rank in society (Cole , 385). As the buildings were laid out within the city, they were shifted to block the views of plazas so there would be more privacy in the spaces, the heights of buildings would also change to alter the feel of the spaces (Vasina , 223). The exterior ornamentations are composed of lines and pattern that create intricate geometric patterns similar to those often seen on Kuba textiles. Walls are created with palm ribs that are then tied together with vines that create the patterns; more detailed patterns are usually separated by simple patterns. The pattern that represents royalty is named mbul bwiin; it is “a pattern in which two angles enclose a small diamond shape, the module separated form repeats by V-shapes” (Cole , 385).
Building Details: Many Kuba buildings began as one room with a simple rectangular shape; in 1892, buildings were beginning to have more rooms and some had up to three. The partitions were floor to ceiling and were just as elaborate as the exterior walls. This became very difficult to deal with because it was much harder to plait, stitch, and sew the walls together (Vasina , 223). As the buildings began to grow, the people looked more into decorations and began to carve doorposts and bed frames as well as enlarge door frames and invent sliding doors which took the place of rolled up rugs that previously covered doorways. Less complex building forms can be found in the rural areas and small tribal towns while more complex and larger buildings can be found in the capital of Nsheng (Vasina , 224).
Kuba people engage in farming, hunting and fishing. Both women and men are involved in farming. The women work on the plains by both planting and gathering; when they finish their work in the fields, they help the men in the forests. Kuba cultivate corn (maize), cassava, millet, peanuts (groundnuts), and beans as staples. They grow raffia and oil palms, raise corn as a cash crop, and hunt and fish.
The society’s diet is mostly composed of vegetables. Meat is only eaten in the dry season because the men are able to hunt without the responsibilities of farming. Men trap animals in groups; trapping takes place in the brush. Fishers use both fixed and flying nets; their fishing status is determined by the danger in the water. Fish ponds are created and harvested by the women twice a year while streams are also used to gather small fish and mollusks (Meurant , 122). Because the tribe is located between three vast river systems, the Sankuru, Kasai, and Lulua, fishing is one of the ways that the Kuba people to build their economy (Cole , 381).They have kept aloof from modern life, and few have emigrated or engage in European-style occupations.
Kuba society is matrilineal. The Queen Mother empowers the nyim (nyimi) or king. His power is absolute. The nyim heads the Kuba Kingdom. The nyim is considered divine. He is lawmaker, warrior, and spirit medium. The government was organized around a merit system that dispensed title and authority among the aristocracy. This solidified loyalty to the kingdom. Individual polities had autonomy within the empire but were required to pay tribute to the Bushoong royal court.
Arts for Rulers
The Kuba’s sacred kingship and art was encouraged by the rulers and members of the court; artists were honored. Memorial pieces were completed which were not the work of everyday people and were seen as respected objects (Caraway). Each king is presented with a pattern that is drawn onto their drum when they come into office. Some kings create their own patterns while others allow the person sewing the pattern to design it (Washburn , 24).
The king and other royal parliament members have a very prestigious style of dress that distinguishes the members ranking; the king holds objects that are very important within the Kuba society. The different pieces of clothing show the role that the king is playing at that time and show how sacred the role of the king is to their society.
Ndop, or royal portrait sculptures are normally carved out of wood and are the most familiar form of Kuba art. Each ndop figure is seated on a rectangular base which has intricate carvings; the patterns and intricacy of detail show that the ruler has a very high ranking within society. A base is used because the King must sit higher than his counterparts and draw more attention to himself. When a man becomes king, he is given a “sword of office,” which is held in the left hand of each ndop figure. In this figure of Shyaam aMbul a-Ngoong, the ndop has a sash around his waist as well as crossed belts on his chest, and arm bands; scarification patterns can be seen on the figure’s face. The protruding rectangular crown that caps the figure is called a shody and only kings and regents are allowed to wear these (Cole , 383).
The mask was created as a helmet used in initiation ceremonies; the ceremonies include those relating to the founding and creation of the Kuba kingdom as well as the ruling family. The mask to the left, found in the MFA in Boston, MA, looks into the story of Mboom who was the brother of the founder, Mwaash aMbooy, of the Kuba kingdom who lusted for his brother’s wife. The other possibility of interpretation for this mask is that it holds nature spirits, commoners, or Mbuti (who are forest dwellers) (MFA gallery label).
The Mboom mask is said to be the oldest mask with the Mwaash aMbooy mask shortly following. The Mwaash aMbooy is made of wood, elephant hide, and raffia cloth; this mask represents the King. Masks were first thought to have been worn in the time of Queen Labaam whose name and ideas suggested carving during her reign. Following traditions allows the masks to be found in the Age of Chiefs; a ncok song is known that speaks of a bwoom mask during this age. The song also mentioned how the masks needed decorations added so this was the time where cowries and beads were added to the surfaces of these masks (Vasina , 216).
The surfaces of the masks are decorated with geometric designs made with different colors, patterns, and textures. Most commonly fur, animal hide, metal, and feathers were used as the base material before being covered with beads and other decorative elements. There are many types of masks that are commonly worn in the Kuba culture; in the capital of Nsheng, masks cannot be worn without the permission of the King. Three important masquerades in Nsheng include mwashamboy, bwoom, and ngady a mwash.
Ngesh is represented by the oldest known mask, the bwoom mask. The style is like that of the middle Kasai and it could be much older than those created during the Age of Chiefs (Vasina , 216). This mask is a carved wooded helmet that is given a very wide forehead and sunken cheeks that are annunciated by patterns or hatching and beads. Copper covers the mouth of the mask which is then outlined with red and white beads; the beads used are imported and the cowries are also bought from other tribes. Black beads are used to separate the forehead into different sectors and multicolored beads are used to bring attention to other aspects of the face such as the nose and chin. The person wearing the mask looks out through the nostril holes because there are not any eye holes present; the mask is supposed to give the feeling of being blind. This mask represents the brother of Woot but tends to stand for the commoners in society as well as the lower ranked members of the court (Cole , 390). Some masks similar to the bwoom mask include the buffalo mask, ram mask, and initiation masks such as nnup, kalyengl, ishyeen imaulul, and ngady mwaash ambooy (Vasina , 216).
Ngady a Mwash Mask
A ngady a mwash mask is much more intricate with many different colored beads, fabric pieces, shells, and surface patterns. This mask is given eye holes so the wearer is able to see what is going on while they perform before the Kuba tribal community. In this example, beads descend from the nose and pass all the way down over the mouth. The triangles represent domesticity and the different shades of barkcloth to remind people of their ancestors. Lines passing across the cheeks of ngady a mwash, Woot’s sister and wife, represent tears of suffering and mourning. The fact the mask represents a woman can be determined when watching the graceful choreographed movements of the man representing Woot’s sister and wife (Cole , 391)
The most common uses of masks include initiation ceremonies and funerals. Initiation ceremonies usually entail the circumcision of boys and their acceptance into manhood; both female and male figures are represented by masks in the ceremony even though only men perform (Cole , 391). The Nyeeng mask, a type of helmet mask, is associated with the boys’ initiation and is worn by Shyaam during these ceremonies (Vasina , 216). Funerary masks are not only used for title holders in society, but for non recognized members of society as well (Cole , 391). Regional differences can be spotted in the bwoom masks from the eastern and central tribes. During the 18th century, most were carved out of a very light wood; the trunk of the tree was used because it was over one meter in diameter so it was the perfect size for a mask (Vasina , 216).
Patterning and Barkcloth:
Geometric patterns found on textiles can be found in many different aspects of society and have a certain meaning and importance to the Kuba people. When textiles are embroidered, the status of the wearer is that of royalty because of the extra effort that is put into the product (Meurant, 115).
The levels of detail and the pattern determine the status of the person within society. Fabric is created from the inner bark of local trees that is beaten after being removed (Cole , 387). Barkcloth is made by sewing small pieces together and only the more prestigious people wear clothes made of this fabric type. The skirt seen here is made of barkcloth and has a border of raffia textile and some pieces of fabric imported from Europe. Even though this design looks very simple from far away, one notices the amount of effort put into the design of this cloth that is actually made of small triangles sewed together to form diamonds, both natural and dark colors are used (Cole , 388).
Textiles and Ranking in Society: The patterns not only represent economic and social status but ethnic unity and religion as well (Cole, 388). The Kuba continue to produce all of the different patterns even though these no longer represent the power of the people. The aesthetic does however, show a person’s ranking within the society (Washburn , 20).
Raffia Cloth: The weaving of Raffia cloth originated in the Kingdom of the Kongo, near the entrance of the mouth of Zaire into the Atlantic Ocean. The Kuba began to use this style in the 17th and 18th centuries (Washburn , 21). Raffia cloth is common because the Kuba men cultivate palm trees and then prepare the fronds, which are the outer layers of leaves (Cole , 388). Men then weave the white fibers on a diagonal loom to create two foot by two foot rectangular squares; when the raffia dries, it becomes light tan in color (Washburn , 23). When the textiles are completed, both men and women add decoration before wearing their skirts; these skirts, which are worn wrapped many times around the torso, can reach a length of nine feet or even reach to twenty feet (Cole, 388). The men provide a more natural effect to textiles while the women create the rectilinear and geometric expressions that define the cloth (Meurant , 115). Women add the geometric designs by either embroidery or plush motifs; plush motifs are decorations separated or outlined by parallel lines (Washburn , 23). Sudden changes in pattern are common to break up the surface; these could occur in line thicknesses or the elements represented. Raffia cloth has always been an important item in the Kuba society, it was used as currency and in legal settlements and marriage contracts (Cole , 389). When these squares were used as currency, people referred to them as mbal or bambala which translates as people of the cloth (Washburn , 20). Ceremonies such as court and funeral always used raffia cloth; this cloth is still remembered for its importance throughout history (Cole , 389).
Pattern Naming: The Kuba people have over two hundred named patterns and it is very difficult to study all of the origins of the patterns and production techniques. Each pattern is given a name; however, some patterns have different names depending on the tribe spoken to and the popularity of the design. There are also different names when other mediums are used (Washburn , 24). When a pattern is common among a majority of the tribes, the same name is usually given by every tribe. The Bushong patterns are different from the other Kuba designs because regular patterns are used. This regularity gives more royal power and it shows individual characteristics that help to differentiate the Bushong from other tribes (Washburn , 25). The following list is composed of pattern names and visual examples of these types.
Kuba people did not begin carving intricate items until the time of the first capital, Nsheng, less detailed objects carved before that time were found in the smaller communities. When looking at objects, it is sometimes difficult to determine if it was a piece of pottery or a wood carving. Everyday objects were carved in detail such as hooks carved as little men or plates, cups, and storage boxes.
The cup is carved out of wood and its form has intricate details wrapping the surface of the cup. Only people with titles in the renowned court structure are allowed to receive these special cups. The narrow face is pronounced by a copper strip.
These special vessels were carved to order by special artists (figure MFA cup). Many drinking horns are used for palm wine and have ritual connotations. A person’s status was shown within the Kuba court by the amount of detail put into the vessels. Buffalo horns are used which show power as well as geometric shapes that appear on textiles and in scarification. When these drinking flasks had ram horns, it symbolized the fact that the owner held a senior position in the Kuba court (MFA gallery label).
Cosmetic boxes and other types of ornate containers are popular within the Kuba society and are carved out of wood. The cosmetics held within the container include tukula powder, a substance made from the bark of a tree; this was used for the body, hair, and preparation for the burial of the deceased (Cole , 386).
Men and women have different roles to play in the creation of art that truly represents the Kuba people. The men create curvilinear wood elements by carving wood while the women spend their time adding stylized rectangular representations to the carvings. Men also create art in different forms of media besides wood, such as stone (Meurant , 116).