Dance your eyes around this full circle of objects. Jump along zigzag lines and sail around curves. Skip from bright rows of beads and shells to the brown backs of giant seashells. Even laid out flat in the quiet of a museum, the twenty-three pendants hanging from this belt make a lively collection of patterns and materials.
Now imagine the belt around the waist of a king in full regalia, pendants swaying and clinking with his every step. For the Kuba people of central Africa, each shape and pattern proclaimed a message about the power of the Kuba king.
KEY IDEA ONE
Elaborate costumes reinforced the order of Kuba society.
The Kuba (KOO-bah) kingdom, located in today’s Democratic Republic of Congo, was a place of great wealth in the late 1800s. Under the king, the nobility competed for rank and status. Richly ornamented clothing allowed them to show off their position, power, and wealth. Styles from that time are still worn on ceremonial occasions today.
Rules controlled who could wear what. The grandest costumes were for the king and his family. Only royalty could wear this type of belt, a yet belt heavy with dangling pendants. The pendants are shaped like various objects associated with royalty. For example, this belt has two pendants in the form of a ram’s head, a symbol of the king. Two other pendants resemble a double bell, an instrument used at court.
A belt like this was just one part of the royal regalia. A king’s complete outfit-including skirts, belts, hats, collars, necklaces, bracelets, armbands, anklets, and other ornaments could weigh up to 185 pounds. He needed the help of assistants just to move. The heavy costume, with its precious shells and beads, symbolized the ruler’s privilege as king and also the burden of his responsibilities.
A king continued to add to his costume throughout his reign. Most yet belts have twenty or thirty pendants on them. One king had eighty pendants on one of his yet belts by the end of his rule.
KEY IDEA TWO
Precious materials are prized for both value and appearance.
Glass beads and cowrie shells were the most precious materials in traditional Kuba decoration. Their rarity made them valuable. Glass beads came from Europe through trade. Cowries the shiny shells of small warm-water mollusks came from Africa’s distant coastal waters. Throughout Africa, cowries were used as money.
The more beads and cowries on a garment, the greater the wearer’s wealth and status. Royal garments, of course, had the most. Besides showing off someone’s wealth, the beads and shells had value purely as decoration.
The dramatic colors of glass beads never faded, and beads could be stitched into any number of patterns. The shiny white cowrie shells could be attached in different ways that added to the design. They might be threaded through their slits, so that the slits made a pattern of lines. Attached through holes drilled in their rounded backs, they formed little circles. And dangling from the bottom of a pendant, they became a fringe.
The cowrie shells on this pendant in the shape of a seashell are attached by threads passed through their natural slits.
The cowrie shells on this lion’s paw shape are attached through holes drilled into their rounded backs.
The slits of the cowrie shell can become part of an elaborate pattern.
KEY IDEA THREE
Patterns have particular names and meanings in Kuba life.
Patterns appear everywhere in Kuba life carved on wooden boxes and bowls, woven in skirts and rugs, even built into the walls of buildings and etched in the skin.
Intricate variations of patterns have their own names. A name recalling an object or something in nature can add to the design’s symbolism. For example, the razor’s edge pattern of triangles on one of this belt’s pendants is said to refer to the king’s ability to make decisions. The leopard’s branch design on another pendant suggests royal power, since the king is often compared to a leopard.
Inventing a new pattern is regarded as a sign of intelligence. Sometimes a pattern is known by the name of the king who laid claim to it in hopes of getting credit for its cleverness.
Kuba patterns appear in all kinds of objects and materials, like this mat made of raffia fibers. (The photograph of the Kuba king in Key Idea 1 shows a similar mat in use and an assortment of other patterned objects.)
Image is unavailable
The razor’s edge pattern, seen here decorating a shape known as crouching frog, refers to the king’s ability to make decisions.
Image is unavailable
The leopard’s branch design suggests royal power since the king is often compared to a leopard.
Patterns All Around
Kuba artists are famous for applying patterns to all kinds of objects. Look around you and make a list of all the objects and surfaces you see that have patterns on them. What else could be decorated with a pattern that is not already? What different materials could be used?
Variations on a Theme
Go to the entry about the Kuba belt on Mia’s website. Use the zoom feature to explore the patterns on the belt. Choose a pattern from the belt and map it on a piece of graph paper. What is the smallest unit of the pattern? Then invent variations of the pattern by producing it in different colors, reversing the design, or repeating it across a larger area. Make up names for your new patterns based on what they remind you of.
The Weight of Responsibility
The heavy pendants of a yet belt are symbols of the king’s powers and responsibilities. Design a charm bracelet for an American leader (teacher, politician, or general, for example) bearing symbols of their role as a leader. What does each symbol stand for?
The pendants on a yet belt are often decorative imitations of other objects, like seashells, ram’s heads, or musical instruments. (Such ornaments are known as skeuomorphs.) Choose an object and make a three-dimensional replica of it using one or two different materials for decorative effect (consider using beads, buttons, beans, popcorn kernels, or bottle caps).
Blier, Suzanne Preston. The Royal Arts of Africa: The Majesty of Form. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1998.
Cornet, Joseph. Art Royal Kuba. Milan: Grafica Sipiel Milano, 1982. (in French)
Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art.