The Impact of Regalia on the Royal Arts of Africa
Description of the Analyzed Art Works
The central items discussed in the context of the essay are (a) a plaque depicting chief flanked by two warriors, Benin, AD 1550-1650 (see Figure 1); (b) a photograph depicting Kuba King (nyim) Kok Mabiintsh III in his artistic and ritual traditional regalia (see Figure 2); and (c) a photo of Asantehene Otumfuo Nana Osei Tutu II of the Asante peoples (see Figure 3). To start, the plague shows a warrior chief of the Oba at the center whose high-ranked position is embedded not only in his headdress, necklace and bells as decorations but also the warp from the jeopardy skin as a determinant of royal-like prestige. He is surrounded by two smaller figures of the soldiers, and in this way, the plaque represents the hierarchical structure of the Ashanti society. The two little images above the chief’s head are additional animistic supporters of the royal authority. The second item under consideration is a picture of the Kuba king wearing his traditional regalia costume, bwaantsh, surrounded by his court in the ceremony held outside the palace. Besides the manifestation of royal power through the costume, the nyim holds a sword and a shield as additional regalia of Kuba people’s monarchy. What is more, he is the only person who is seated on a chair, which once again evidences his superior social position over others. The third photo depicts the king of Ashanti, or Asante, people in this traditional appeal. Apart from the excessive decoration of the body parts with the golden jewelry, the kente cloth used as the king’s wrap is a sign of royal origin of this figure. The gold as a primary and eloquent markedness of the monarch roots is further expanded on the picture with regard to the stool, swords, headdresses and the elements of clothing of the court among others.
Thus, these images represent the African royal art that incorporates a significant role of regalia in multiple respects and the paper presents a comparative-contrast analysis of the items with relation to a broader context of these cultures at both local and international levels.
As it was noted earlier, the plaque depicts a central figure of the chief and smaller figures of the soldiers surrounding him (see Figure 1). This picture shows a structural hierarchy within the Benin community.
Figure 1. Plaque depicting chief flanked by two warriors, Benin, AD 1550-1650
The central figure can be interpreted as a warrior due to “leopard-tooth necklace he wears,” “collar-studded cap with feather,” and “his lavishly woven wrap,” and a heavily decorated belt among other issues. What is more, the overall composition of the plague reveals the seniority of the central figure also based on his headdress, a beaded crown. Drawing upon the rationale by Lifshitz (2009), “the right to wear a beaded crown was limited to the Oba, the Iyoba, and the Ezomo (the Oba’s principal War Chief)”. Therefore, it can be assumed that the complex of the prestigious decorations and jewelry wore by the chief evidence his high-rank position in Benin state.
Additionally, the fact that the chief holds warrior-related regalia, such as a ceremonial spear and a shield, along with the aforementioned attributes, confirms his royal status. The soldiers that flanked him and watch in different sides, securing his flanks, as well as the animated images above the chief, evidence his protected authority both in the earthy and animistic world. However, the warriors are not heavily armed, but posses a little weapon arsenal. In this case, it is to be stated that this feature correlates with the ceremonial character of the depicted event. At the same time, the raised right hand of the chief with a ceremonial spear demonstrates “a gesture of honor and loyalty offered by chiefs to the Oba”. It follows that while the central figure is of royal origin and has servants protecting him, he is still subordinated to the Oba.
In contrast, Figure 2 features a royal person himself, the Kuba nyim, Kok Mabiintsh III, though the placement of the individuals around him also evidences the issue of subordination and hierarchy in Kuba society.
Figure 2. Kuba King (nyim) Kok Mabiintsh III in his artistic and ritual traditional regalia
The king wears bwaantsh which was a traditional costume of Kuba royals. They possessed only two of them and one of them was supposed to be their burial clothes. This regalia was made of cowry shells and feathers, beads, leather, raffia of different colors and iron bells, as seen in the picture, constituting around fifty most prestigious items the entire nation could possess. Thus, the regalia of this African ruler also embodied the prestigious items and possessions of his people. Nonetheless, in contrast to the plaque depicting the chief in a wrapped cloth, the nyim’s superiority was emphasized by that his costume was sewed. The commoners, and even royal family members, are wearing wraps as well, given the photo. The textile has specified geometrical ornaments the implications and repetitions of which can be observed in the elements of clothes of his senior wife sitting on the right of him. This issue is traceable not only with regards to the ornamental design but also the colors of the royal costume, including red, black, white and blue which are followed in a specified sequence and frequency (see Figure 2). The geometric figures of the bwaantsh are further repeated above the king’s head, on the cloth used for the tented ceiling (see Figure 2). In this way, the place is marked with the sacred royalty as well.
Furthermore, Kok Mabiintsh III holds the scepter and the sword as the signs of supreme power. His headdress is house-like, symbolizing the king’s house. On both sides, the king is surrounded by his senior wife and one more female figure of the mixed African-European origin from his harem. On a similar note, jewelry, as a vivid sign of a prestigious origin, decorates the necks of these women and the other members of the court. All individuals around are kneeled and take part in the court ceremony, while the king is the only one who sits on the chair.
The figure of the Ashanti king Asantehene Otumfuo Nana Osei Tutu II is also an eloquent representation of royalty. Foremost, this is due to the numerous golden ornaments that are concentrated around his neck, elbows and wrists (see Figure 3). This attribute can be possibly traced in the image of the chief on the plaque. Nevertheless, there was no golden attributes in the figure of the Kuba king. Although the photography does not show that, the king of Asante wears golden decorations on his legs and ankles as well.
Figure 3. Asantehene Otumfuo Nana Osei Tutu II of the Asante
Apart from that, the cloth into which the king’s body is wrapped is another attribute of royalty of this person. The bright colors of the kente clearly distinguish him from the masses and make his overall monarch image complete, alongside with the crown which comprises of the velvet cloth and golden decorations.
However, this is not the figure of the royal person alone that defines his royal ancestry. In particular, the Sika Dwa Kofi, or the Golden Stool born on Friday, is one of the main elements of regalia that is associated with the life force and the soul of the whole Asante nation assembling the concept of unity. In this respect, stool is also correlated with superior power among Ashanti people similarly to the tradition of the Kuba nation, as discussed previously. On the right hand of the king, there is a fragment of the bearer of the Asante’s most notable sword referred to as themponponsuo, or responsibility. The photo shows the part of his headdress made of feather and gold. Themponponsuo is a sword with which the Asantehene swears in loyalty and commitment to his people. The sword has a specific design of a leopard-skin hilt as well as has a barely visible golden ornament of a gaboon viper that holds a hornbill bird in one’s mouth. Therefore, the sword, spear and shield can be referred to as common constituents of the royal regalia among the African rulers of the analyzed nations. By the same token, the scope of royal power signs are expanded in regards to the Ashanti king. To be more precise, on the left from the king, there is one more stool resembling a part of the Asante confederacy. Additionally, while the king holds a horse’s tail on his hand, there are holders of the elephant tails behind him, which evidences his authority over people and animals simultaneously. The similar concept was observed with regard to the plaque and the animistic images above the chief’s head.
The representation of royalty embodied in the plaque is linked to the specificity of its art genre among other issues. In particular, the plaques were used to decorate the pillars and the walls of the royal palaces with relation to the ceremonial state of the court and precise details of regalia and the costume. The four holes around the plaque’s perimeter show its previous use with the above purpose. Following the presented earlier description of the analyzed plaque, it is evident that “specific objects with clear stylistic characteristics were reserved for the king and the court and could become items involved in competition for power”. Indeed, without careful examination, a quick analysis would make it possible to categorize the central figure as the major royal person rather than his principal warrior chief, who was also of royal status in the Benin society. At the same time, the ceremonial spear and shield he holds symbolizes the defense of the nation, showing the historical and political prestige of the royalty of Benin. In this case, the craftsmen attempted to demonstrate the attributes of royalty as superior not only with respect to the hierarchical status in terms of this community but also with regards to other ethnicities.
What is more, a specific attention in the context of the analysis of the plaque should be paid to the stylistic depiction of the figures on it. In accordance with Hackett, “the carvers’ guild, under the guidance of the patron deity, Ugbe n’Owewe, serves to hand down and replicate a body of forms and patterns”. This factor relates to the accurateness of real-life depiction of the tiniest details relevant to these images. For instance, the heads are larger than the rest of their body since “the scale of the figures reflects their importance within the composition”. Additionally, the availability of accurately detailed regalia as a part of the composition complete this approach to the fullest. This characteristic is one of the most distinct features of Benin art which attempts to explicitly implement “the role, status and specific action of the figures” through the details of their external appeals.
On a similar note, occurrence of this art form is widely disputed by the scholars, such as Dark and Craddock among others, though the plaques are mostly attributed to the art influence of Portuguese traders, while Indian and Islamic impacts are also cited as possible. In any case, the plaques can be boldly referred to as “a powerful symbol of political unity and ancestral significance” that points to “the quest for community and continuity, and the need for periodic renewal of the identity”.
Following the data reported by the researchers, the traditional costume of Kuba kings weights around eighty kilograms and only the nyim is allowed to wear them, though he does it rarely due to the weight and only in the context of the important ceremonies. The aforementioned decorations used for the bwaantsh show the richness and wealth of the entire people embodied in the image of their king. To illustrate, the natural resources with which the regalia was decorated evidenced the prestige and prosperity of the people. The belt is one of the most important royal accessories, whereas the traditional beliefs ascertain that is was made of pounded bark that indicates long-lasting existence of these people. It is covered with cowry shells placed accurately in nineteen rows and has four-meter length, making it specifically heavy to wear. Hackett has asserted that these regalia showed a decline in the regional cult and occurrence of “a cult of the king as a nature spirit”, underlying a strong association between the royal power and sorcery. This characteristic once again emphasizes the significance of the nature-like costume of the royal person as a symbolic and idealized leader. In comparison with the plaque, the connectedness to the nature is more explicitly presented in the image of the Kuba nyim. Nevertheless, the cult of the royal person can be attributed to both cultures.
With regard to the image of Ashanti king, kente cloth is one of the representations of his royalty being produced by using both silk and cotton. The colors of the cloth have incorporated a range of traditional beliefs of these people, including red as a representation of the blood of forefathers, yellow associated with gold, green being assembled with the forest, to list a few. Even patterns created by the weavers have the specified meaning with respect to the royal person. To illustrate, zigzags eliminate that life path is not straight, while the rhombus, or niata, are representations of two-edged swords. Moreover, the main sword of Ashanti has become an embodiment of such value as patience of the king that is promoted by traditions, as well as incorporated the power of the king over the animistic world. Apart from that, the fact that the royal person wore sufficient amounts of golden regalia is believed to physically weigh down the Asantehene in order to keep him literally in his place at the heart of the Asante state. Golden jewelry was a way to protect both physically and spiritually the ruler from any potential weakness by means of deflection.
Summarizing the findings of the paper, it is necessary to emphasize that the depiction of royalty has become a distinct feature of all three peoples, Kuba, Benin and Asante, which made them recognizable on a global arena. Each of the royal dynasties was characterized by distinct traits, having several factors in common as well. First, while Benin and Ashanti leaders preferred wrapped clothes as a feature of royalty, the Kuba nyim’s costume was sewed demonstrating his superior position over the rest of his people. Second, Asante and Kuba rulers showed their higher political status over the commoners based on their ownership of a chair, though this feature was a little differently interpreted in both cultures. Third, all the royal persons explicitly demonstrated their superiority in both human and animal world, but these representations had vivid dissimilarities, as evidenced in the analysis. Finally, that was not solely gold that distinguished the royal origin of the individual whereas the costume of the Kuba king embodied the natural wealth of his people.