Crown

A Kuba king wears an elaborate cowrie-shell laden costume called bwaantshy, which can weigh up to 100 kg (220 lb.). The lavish use of the shells on this accompanying crown indicates it was worn for official matters with a bwaantshy. For hundreds of years, cowrie shells have been valued in Africa as currency, and as talismans or embellishments.


Collection Connections 

  • Crown

    Crown

    Africa: Central Africa, Democratic Republic of the Congo

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  • Bell Pendant

    Bell Pendant

    Africa: Central Africa, Democratic Republic of the Congo

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  • Hat

    Hat

    Africa: Central Africa, Democratic Republic of the Congo

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Where do the shells and beads that decorate this crown come from and what is their significance?

responded: Mar 31, 2010

Posted by Irene Yancheva

293
Recommend this Response
The DRC has access to the Atlantic Ocean. If cowrie shells come from the Atlantic, they may have had easy access to them. However, from the late 15th century, the Kuba people had access to the following trade routes: Portuguese, European Bead Distribution routes (Venice, Amsterdam), Saharan Caravan Routes (First and Secondary) and Equatorial Routes. These shells could also have come to the DRC through these new routes. Cowrie shells hold specific meanings for the Kuba people and have symbolic significance. They represent fertility and health, power and prestige. They are also associated with wealth and social, political, or spiritual authority which is why beadwork is worn by chiefs and dignitaries. In addition to their aesthetic and cultural value, these shells have been used as a medium of exchange. These shells are one of the earliest forms of natural ornamentation. As an object for special ceremonial occasions, they are closely associated with individual and group identity, as well as social position or status. Beaded crowns and other regalia used by West African royalty are made by male professional beaders. Often these craft makers also use small glass seed beads imported from Venice to make their wares. It is believed that royal or religious regalia is so powerful that it can only be made by a man. A woman’s body might have a bad effect on them and hence on the divinity of the kingship. Art is everything to the Kuba people who live in the transitional area between the great grasslands of south central Africa and the rainforests near the equator. Their artistry of adornment is unmatched in Africa and they are among the best known in Africa for the splendor of their royal and chieftaincy regalia. Above all, the Kuba are known for their use of European glass beads and cowries.

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