These two figures represent an ancestor couple or mythical chiefs. Both figures are wearing an arched headdress, the ‘mutwe wa kayanda’, reserved for Chokwe chiefs and dignitaries. In the male figure, the beard is made from real human hair. In the hole above the navel, a copper nail probably once resided. On the chest of the woman hangs a ‘cimba pendant’. The cimba was a white disc of shell that symbolizes the moon, which was worn by a chief as an insignia.
It is possible that the figures depict the cultural hero Chibinda Ilunga and his wife Lweji. They are considered to be the mythical founders of the Chokwe kingdom. According to the myth, Chibinda Ilunga entered the territory of the female Lunda chief Lweji while hunting. Chibinda Ilunga was the son of the Luba king Kalala Ilunga and was known as a great hunter that excelled in strength and intelligence. Lweji saw the importance of these qualities for her people and married him. Chibinda introduced the idea of a sacred kingship to the Lunda and the peoples that they ruled. Figures that are considered to depict Chibinda Ilunga (the identification is of a much more recent date than the figures themselves) bear the headdress of a chief and a hunter’s gear, often depicting a rifle, as here.
The figures were collected around 1885 by F. Hanken, an agent of the New African Trade Association (NAHV) at Landana in Cabinda (Angola). At this time, the Chokwe largely lived in what is currently North-east Angola and the border areas with the current Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Hanken’s collection arrived in the Netherlands in two shipments, the first of which he extensively documented. But these figures were a part of the second shipment and he described them only briefly: ‘Bakiessi. Two large… fetish figure(s)(sic) of the Bihé Negros. S.W. Africa.’ Unfortunately, there is no further contextual documentation on the significance and use of the two figures. This lack of information extends to all Chokwe figures in this unique style: all date from before the end of the 19th century and nearly all were acquired on or via the European trading posts on the coast, far from their original context. There is no concrete information on the function of these types of figures, nor is there any certainty that they represent Chibinda Ilunga and Lweji. Stylistically, they belong to the Chokwe court art and they display characteristics of the Musamba style. The faces are mask-like and flat, with a strongly protruding jaw and geometric facial features and their bodies are also very stylized. Their slender, elongated posture makes them fairly unusual. During the negotiations surrounding the transfer of the Africa collection from the Indies Institute (Indisch Instituut) to the Museum of Ethnography in Leiden in 1947 (see p. ), there was an intense dispute over the two figures. They were finally listed separately as being on loan and were the only objects whose ownership was not transferred definitively. In 1952, the Chokwe figures returned to the Tropenmuseum and since then have been a part of all permanent Africa Departments.
Wijs, S. Chokwe couple. In: Faber, P., S. Wijs & D. van Dartel, 'Africa at the Tropenmuseum'. Amsterdam: KIT Publishers, 2011, p.25
circa 50cm (19 11/16in.)