The Stool of Chief Vugha II of Babanki Kijem

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The Stool

The stool, which is made of oak, beads, and string, dates from the early twentieth century. The stool is brown in color and meticulously curved from wood, with string and beads used as decorative ornaments. The stool is still on display at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas. This paper would dissect the stool from the bottom to the top in order to provide a thorough explanation of its appearance. The stool is cylindrical, and as a result of this, the base section of the stool is ring-like, circular and hollow at the center. The base of the seat supports ten sculptured human figurines of which five are bigger than the other five.

Detailed Analysis of the Stool

The grand and small human figurines alternate around the base. All the grand figurines are males and are standing upright while the small figurines are females and appear to be in a semi-squatting position. All the figures are nude, and the larger male figurines are adorned with a necklace made of black and white beads. The male figures appear to be wearing prestige headdresses and ivory armlets.

Significance of the Stool

The larger figurines appear to carry the upper section of the stool with their hands over their heads. The upper section of the stool is also circular like the lower part but is not hollowed out in the center to give a smooth surface for someone to sit on. The entire seat from top to bottom is 71.10 cm tall and has a diameter of approximately 40 cm (The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston - Arts & Culture). One aspect of the art piece that stands out is the fact that the larger male figurines are currying up the top section of stool over their heads.

Formal Analysis

As indicated in the introductory section of the paper, the Official Stool of Chief Vugha II of Babanki Kijem traces its roots to the Babanki cultural group of Western Cameroon. The Babanki community resides in the grassland areas of Western Cameroon, and their environment has also played a significant role in determining their art pieces. The communal lifestyles of the Babanki people are also reflected in the design of the stool through the numerous figurines that depict the different members of the society.

Cultural and Symbolic Meaning

The stool has been crafted to reflect different aspects of the Babanki community, and this section of the paper will provide an in-depth discussion of the different features in the stool and their cultural meaning (The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston - Arts & Culture). One aspect of the stool that significantly stands out is the fact that it is circular at the bottom. The circular shape serves to increase the seat's surface area thereby preventing it from sinking into the ground once a person sits on it. The cylindrical shape of the seat serves to enhance its rigidity and ensure that the seat is capable of comfortably carrying heavy loads without placing a lot of strain on its structural integrity.

Genders Representation

The circular shape of the stool at the top ad the bottom is also a representation of a complete society within the Babanki society. In traditional Babanki culture, the circle shape is used to indicate that all the different aspects of society are in harmony with each other and as a result of this, the society is complete within itself. Another key aspect of the stool is the fact that it has human figurines decorating it. This is quite important because. in traditional Babanki culture, the use of human figurines in decorations was only allowed for institutions that represented the whole society like the royal family or the military. Families were not allowed to adorn their houses with artifacts depicting human figurines. Based on this, it is logical to conclude that the stool had been designed for an individual who holds a societal office like the Chief of the community.

Differences in Representation

Through an analysis of the stool one also notices that there is a significant difference between the depiction of the male and the female figurines. As indicated the male figurines are standing upright while the female figurines are in a semi-squat position. It is also evident that the male figurines are significantly larger than the female figurines. The difference in the representation of the figurines is an indicator of the societal difference between men and women in the Babanki society. In the Babanki community, the male members of the society were the decision makers, and as a result, they were regarded as the head of the community. The females in the society were required to be submissive to their male counterparts, and this is a scene in the fact that females are represented in a more submissive posture than their male counterparts.

Representation of Power and Status

In traditional Babanki culture, men are considered to be superior to women because once they reached adulthood, all the men were expected to join the community's military society and engage in affairs of protecting the community. The difference in the representation is also based on the fact that it was only male elders who joined the king's court.

Decoration and Ornaments

Another key difference between the larger figurines and the smaller figurines is in the fact that the larger human figurines are decorated with beaded necklaces and armlets and prestigious headdresses. These are ornaments that were traditionally worn by the members of the King's court who represented different important families in the community. The members of the king's court were responsible for helping the king in making important decisions and advised the King on affairs of the state.

Support and Representation

Due to their responsibilities, the members of the King's court were regarded as the King's support base. This responsibility is depicted in the stool with the larger figurines which are carrying the top of the stool over their heads. The holding of the top of the seat over the heads of the members of the king's court also represented the Kingdom's support of the kings right to rule over it. The kingdom's support of the King's rule is derived from the fact that members of the King's court represented the major clans within the community and thus were seen as representative of the people in the Kingdom's decision-making level. As indicated, the top of the seat is circular and smoothened out to provide a comfortable surface for the person sitting on it to do so. The circular nature of the top of the stool is also an indicator of the completion of the Babanki society under the rule of the king.

Anthropomorphic Harp

The Anthropomorphic Harp dates back to the early 20th century amongst members of the Mangbetu community of the Democratic Republic of Congo (The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston - Arts & Culture). The Anthropomorphic harp is currently housed in the Museum of Fine Arts in Texas. The Mangbetu harps as they are popularly referred to as prestigious musical instruments that are made from wood, hide, sinew and string. This section of the description paper will provide a detailed description of the harp's physical appearance (The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston - Arts & Culture). At first glance, one realizes that the Mangbetu harp consists of three major arts namely the sound box, a heading, and the string component.

Description of the Anthropomorphic Harp

The Mengbetu harp is developed from two wood pieces. The first piece is which forms the sound box and is the main part of the musical instrument is carved from a large block of wood in the shape of a female's torso which is a rounded rectangle. The center part of the instrument is hollowed out so that it can act as the resonating chamber of the musical instrument. The resonating chamber is then covered with the hide (likely from a cow) which is wrapped around the entire main piece with three openings at the top. The first opening is where the strings enter into the sound box.

Neck and Head of the Harp

The two other openings are opposite each site of the string's opening. The second piece of wood is carved into the neck of the instrument. It is an arched stick-like piece with top end curved to resemble the head of a person, and the bottom end is curved to connect with the sound box. At the top of the neck below the head, five holes have been drilled and are plugged with friction-tuning pegs that are made of wood.

Elaborate Coiffure and Cultural Significance

Each of the pegs is connected to a string, made from fiber, which connects to the middle hole of the resonator membrane, the hide skin covering the hollowed out sound box. The string appears to be strongly attached to the resonator membrane with small sticks that are hidden below the membrane. This ensures that when the pegs are tightened, the string is held in tension by the resistance that is created when the small stick is pushed up against the membrane. In reviewing the human head at the top of the instrument's neck, it is evident that the head is that of a female person.

Dimensions and Appearance

The figurine is the most significant part of the musical instrument as it reflects the culture of the Mangbetu individuals who are the crafters of the harp. The figurine has an elaborate coiffure which accentuates an elongated skull. This is also depicted in the fact that the area where the figurines eyebrows should have been placed seems to be lifted from its normal position. The dimensions of the anthropomorphic harp can be estimated to be width 50.2 × height 32.4 × length 12.1 cm (The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston - Arts & Culture). The neck is brown, and the coiffure is black.

Cultural and Symbolic Analysis

The different components of the anthropomorphic harp are reflective of the various aspects of the Mangbetu culture. This section of the paper provides a detailed analysis of each part how they function in the music instrument and how they reflect the Mangbetu culture. As already indicated, an aspect of the anthropomorphic harp that stands out the most is the female head figurine at the top of the neck. The figurine is quite important because it only acts as a decorative feature for the harp and does not in any way influence the music quality. The appearance of the figurine is indicative of the fact that the female represented is an individual of high rank. This is especially because the elaborate coiffure that is adorning the figurines head was only popular among members of the societies ruling class. The elaborate nature of the coiffure and the detailed carving of the figurine also serves to indicate that the harp was developed for a member of the ruling family.

Social and Aesthetic Significance

The coiffeur is used to represent the elongated skulls that are common among members of the Mangbetu community. The elongated skull is achieved through a practice of binding the child's head during its infancy when the skull is still developing. The practice which is referred to as Lipombo was meant to enhance the beauty of a person and in doing so make the person more appealing.

Unique Cultural Practice

This cultural practice is unique to members of the Mangbetu language, and by replicating it on their works of art, they would easily distinguish their artworks from those of other communities in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is important to note that as a result of the Lipombo, the person's eyebrows appeared to be lifted while his/her eyelids appeared to be stretched. This resulted in the person having an exotic appearance that was unique from other surrounding communities in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Symbolic Representation and Connection to Ancestral World

This unique attribute is reflected in the figurine which has an exotic appearance. The crafting of the human figurine at the top of the neck was also used as a means of connecting the human world with the ancestral world, and as a result, the music generated by anthropomorphic harp was thought to resonate across the spiritual realm.

Performance and Tone

In analyzing the performance of the harp, the neck region also stands out as a significant part of the harp's performance. The curved nature of the neck serves to reduce the length of the string that is used to connect the neck to the resonator. The short string allows for enhancing the pitch of the musical instrument this helps to improve the music quality. The pitch is also influenced by the tuning pegs which connect the strings to the resonator.

Importance of Tuning Pegs

By rotating the peg one can be able to increase or decrease the length of the string. This in turn increases or decreases the string's tension which serves to enhance the music quality and allow the musician adjusts the tone as he/she wishes. The placement of the tuning pegs at the top section of the neck is also strategic because it increases the distance the strings have to travel from the resonator to the neck.

Different Strings and Tones

For enhancing the quality of the instrument, the wood used to create the neck needed to be adequately strong to withstand the tension forces emanating from the string. It is also important to note that the curve of the neck was not only meant for musical purposes but also for aesthetic purposes in that the more curved the neck is, the better the harp was deemed to be.

Influence of Strings on Music

The strings are also important aspects of the harp as they influence the nature of the music that is made by the harp. The type of string used in the development of the harp would likely come from fiber or hide. This is because of the tensile strength of these two materials and the environment in which the harp was made. The string closest to the head figurine traveled the longest distance to the resonator, and that furthest to the figurine traveled the shortest distance to the resonator.

Variation in Tones

This variation in the length of the strings influences the tone produced by the musical instrument. The music instrument operates under an ageless physics phenomenon which holds that when a string is plucked, it will continue to vibrate until the energy that is placed on the string is depleted. The vibration of the string results in the movement of the air around it. Even though the strings might have the same function, different types of string and strings of different lengths produce varied frequencies.

Sound Box and Resonance

Strings that are lighter and thinner vibrate rapidly and produce higher tones. These types of strings are located furthest from the sound box as they are capable of vibrating for longer durations. On the other hand, heavier and thicker strings vibrate slower, and as a result, they produce lower tones. This makes them best suited to be located nearer to the sound box. The different length of string and difference in thickness results in each of the string in the instrument having different tones that complement each other when they are played.

Hollowed Out Sound Box

The sound box is also another integral part of the musical instruments as it influences the tone of the music. The hollowed out space in the wood that is used to make the soundboard creates a region where air can move freely and as a result of the movement translate the waves of sound pressure that are developed by the string into musical sounds of the instrument. The bigger the airspace is in the socket, the louder the music that can be generated by the instrument.

Sound Box and Hide Covering

The hide which covers the hole provides a surface area for capturing the sound vibrations from the strings and amplifying them into the hollow space. The two holes located at the opposite sides if the hide provide an avenue through which the music escapes from the instrument and resonates through the environment.

Social and Religious Significance

Among art aficionados, the harp is referred to as the shelf harp due to the manner in which the neck is projected from the resonator. This type of harp is largely found in the central African region where the DRC is located and Gabon. Among the members of the Mangetu community, the harp is viewed as one of the community's most sacred objects, and it is used for religious and entertainment purposes during public events.

Connection to Ancestors and Communal Prosperity

In religious events, the musical instrument is used to re-establish the link between people and their ancestors in an elaborate ritual that was abandoned as a result of Christian evangelization. The harp was largely played by older male initiates who were graduating from childhood to adulthood in initiation ceremonies. The harp is regarded as an instrument of communication between the living dead. The female representation of the music is also thought to be a representation of the female god of music who is responsible for communal prosperity.

Work Cited

"The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston - Arts & Culture." Google Cultural Institute. N.p., 2017. Web. 20 Sept. 2017.

November 09, 2022

Art World

Subject area:

Artwork 20Th Century Texas

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