Art and Centralized Power
By Mary Nooter Roberts
University of California, Los Angeles
This is a portrait of King Shyaam a-Mbul a-Ngwoong, the most famous of the Kuba kings whose reign began in about 1630 and marked the "golden age" of the Kuba. This figure was sculpted to replace the original between 1908 and 1916 and was later presented to King Leopold's personal envoy to the Kuba court between 1916 and 1929. Such ndop (portraits) were made beginning in the mid-eighteenth century to represent each king until 1886 when a civil war disrupted the normal functioning of the court (Vansina 1978: 214). Interestingly, what makes these sculptures "portraits" is not the facial or anatomical features of the figures so much as the distinguishing object held or placed before the king. Here, a sculpted game board recalls Shyaam's travels to the Kingdom of Kongo, where he learned the concept of centralized political authority and the highly popular game board, which he introduced to Kuba peoples to subvert illicit gambling.