Democratic Republic of the Congo
Wood and tacks
H: 31 cm, Diam: 12 cm (H: 12.2 in, Diam: 4.7 in)
Fowler Museum at UCLA. The Jerome L. Joss Collection. X92.9
Among the Kuba of south-central Zaire, utilitarian objects such as this pepper and spice mortar and palm wine cups are elaborately decorated with geometric designs, faces and human figures. Anthropomorphic designs are considered the most prestigious. This display brings personal prestige and status to the owners, suggesting their exceptional wealth and power. Among the Kuba, an individual’s status is based on two factors: class affiliation and possession of title. Being born into a powerful or royal clan can be a distinct advantage, giving an individual the ability to draw on shared clan resources and influence to but an important title and to advance his own reputation and thus the reputation of his clan. Most titles are bought, although they are also given by the king as a reward. The title, in return, becomes a source of income. Each man or woman can only hold one title, so that once a title is obtained, elevation of status is achieved by increasing the importance of the title. The cups and mortar are individually designed and the decorations include human faces and figures. The faces on the cups may be stylized portraits of the owners, who may be identified through status symbols, such as the neck collar (FMCH 87.1435) and medicinal scarification on the cheek. The motif on the mortar of a head going directly into a single leg and foot is well known among the Kuba as a pun on the “foot of the palm wine cup.” The two carved cups are for drinking palm wine. Old stories tell how there was a lake filled with palm wine out of which everyone drank. A woman polluted it, and when people refused to drink, the lake dried up and palm trees grew in the lake bed. A pygmy tasted the say of the tree, discovered the palm wine and became drunk. Since then, palm wine is never to be drunk alone. Rather, it is shared among friends, usually from a common cup such as these, which is supplied by the host. The host displays his carved cup and passes it; each man in turn holds the cup, drinks, and passes it along. In this way the status of the host is reinforced as each guest handles the elaborate cup. Carved cups have been replaced in modern Zaire by plastic ones as old cups are sold and new status symbols such as bicycles flourish.
Source: Ross, Doran H. ed. (1994): “Visions of Africa”, Los Angeles, UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History. page 125