Carved from steatite, this stately figure once served to both mark the grave and honor the memory of an important Kongo chief. The subject's chiefly status is conveyed by his distinctive decorated prestige cap. But the fact that the figure also wears a nineteenth-century European frock coat and carries a briefcase suggests that it depicts someone of considerable influence who may have benefited from the European trade.

The figure wears the coat over a traditional loin wrapper. Such blending of indigenous and foreign dress conventions underscores the critical roles assigned to individual components in the symbolic language of display. Having acquired wealth, he probably could afford a Western coat, which would have been expensive because of its rarity. The appropriation of the coat as a symbol of prestige suggests attempts by members of the Kongo elite to adopt European fashion as an indication of their worldliness. Or, the chief may have received the coat as a gift from a European because of his political stature.

Nii O. Quarcoopome

From Through African Eyes: The European in African Art, 1500 to Present. Detroit, 2009.
Artist Kongo, African
  • Male Figure
Date 19th century
Medium carved steatite or soapstone, polychromed
Dimensions Overall: 20 1/4 × 7 1/8 × 4 13/16 inches (51.4 × 18.1 × 12.2 cm)
Credit Line Gift of Frederick Stearns
Accession Number 90.1S14462
Department Africa, Oceania & Indigenous Americas
On View African N1BB, Level 1 (see map)
Frederick Stearns [1831-1907] (Detroit, Michigan, USA);
1890-present, gift to the Detroit Institute of Arts (Detroit, Michigan, USA)
African Masterworks In The Detroit Institute of Arts. Washington and London: The Detroit Institute of Arts and Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995, cat. no. 55.