Palm wine cups

One of the important art forms identified with competition between titled court members among the Kuba are the carved palm-wine drinking
cups. With half of all Bushoong men holding titles in the 1880s, competition for influence was sometimes fierce, and found expression in the
elaboration of these essentially commonplace household objects into works of extraordinary beauty.

Because Kuba individuals of high status signaled their largesse by distributing great quantities of palm wine to their friends and affiliates to
attract a following, the complexity of such art came under public scrutiny. If, as the myths maintain, the inebriation caused by drinking palm
wine led eventually to the formation of the royal line, drinking thus provided the social setting in which office holders were able to play out
through art the precariousness of their own positions within this heatedly contested milieu.

There are reports – not confirmed – that these cups might have been used in the poison ordeal. Among the Kuba, as among other African
tribes, death was never attributed to natural causes, but to malevolent spirits or to witchcraft. The person suspected of using witchcraft was
required to drink poison from such a cup. If he vomited up the drink, he was declared innocent. On the other hand, his death proclaimed his
guilt and constituted his punishment.
Kuba cup
6 3/4 in x 4 ¼ in
Provenance: Ex E. Lewandowski Collection
Other examples for reference purposes
Cup: Head with Headdress, 19th–20th century
Democratic Republic of Congo; Kuba peoples
Wood; H. 9 5/32 in. (23.26 cm)
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Purchase, Nelson
A. Rockefeller Gift, 1967 (1978.412.541)
Metropolitan Museum of Art

Founded in the early seventeenth century in what is today south-
central Democratic Republic of Congo, the Kuba kingdom was a
wealthy state with an elaborate, merit-based system of courtly titles.
Because positions of power within the Kuba court were awarded
rather than inherited, members of the aristocracy went to great
lengths to distinguish themselves from their peers. Drawing upon the
skill and talent of local artisans, they commissioned elegant personal
accessories that displayed their prosperity, personal achievements,
and upward mobility.

One way in which Kuba titleholders displayed their wealth and
generosity was through the distribution of large quantities of palm
wine to their friends and associates. At the court, drinking vessels
were a vital accessory of great symbolic value. This ornately carved
wooden cup combines human and animal forms to communicate
ideals of refinement and power. Its elegant facial features are well
formed and symmetrically arranged, while the mouth is small and
closed, reflecting the belief that careful thought should always
precede speech. The cup also depicts the Kuba aesthetic practice
of shaving the hairline to frame and offset the forehead, considered
the seat of wisdom and insight, and draw attention to the raised
cicatrizes on the temples, another sign of cultural refinement. Large,
curving horns are juxtaposed with these anthropomorphic elements.
They evoke the ram, a dominant, aggressive animal that does not
tolerate rivals. In the competitive atmosphere of Kuba political life, a
man who embodied the dual qualities of cultivation and ambition
could expect to attain impressive titles and awards.
Kuba cup
D. R. Congo, late 19th-early 20th century
Wood, copper, porcelain
Height 9 1/4 inches
Gift of William E. and Bertha L. Teel 1994.423
Formerly in the collection of Walschaert, Brussels.
Acquired in 1992

Bibliography: Cornet 1982
Titles and status in the elaborate Kuba court structure were signified by
prestige objects of handsome form and intricate detail, such as this vessel
used for drinking palm wine. The head shown on the cup bears delicate
geometric bands and a hatched coiffure, the small face is enhanced by a
copper strip and sweeping coiffure edges identified with the Ngeende
sub-style. Such cups were often carved to order by specialized artists.

Boston Museum of Fine Arts
Kuba (Dem. Rep. of Congo). A palm-wine cup,
nineteenth-twentieth century. Height 7-1/2" (19 cm).
Werner Forman Archive, London.

Visual puns are a prominent feature of many such cups.
Here a human head serves as a vessel. In other cases, an
image of an arm or hand is added to the handle, or the
vessel itself takes the shape of a stomach.
Kuba (Dem. Rep. of Congo). A palm-wine cup in the shape
of a drum, nineteenth century. Wood, height 7-1/4" (18.5
cm). Museum fur Volkerkunde, Berlin.

The royal drum depicted in this palm wine cup represents
a type known as bukit. A similar drum appears on the ndop
sculpture of King Kot a-Mbul, the warrior king who ruled at
the end of the eighteenth century.
Property from the Collection of Estelle Abrams

New York  20,000—30,000 USD  Session 1
15 May 03 10:15 AM

Lot Sold.  Hammer Price with Buyer's Premium:  
 24,000 USD

height 7 3/8in. 18.7cm

the hollowed vessel in the form of a seated figure, with large wedge-shaped feet and delicately carved hands held under the chin with
elbows resting on bent knees, the muscular torso with a thick neck supporting a large head with sensitively carved facial features including
a straight mouth, small nose and large almond-shaped eyes framed by dotted scarification, and wearing a close-cropped coiffure with
incised cross-hatch motif, a rimmed opening at the crown; medium brown surface.

Acquired from Jacques Hautelet, Brussels

Robbins and Nooter (1989: 429, figure 1098)

Kuba sensitivity to detail, design and texture is evident in the carving treatment of the highly treasured ceremonial palm wine cups. The
cups were used by high-ranking individuals for palm wine-drinking rituals. See Robbins and Nooter (ibid) for related cups.
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