a freaky little Congolese art hist moment from the Kimbell


It really is an incredible piece, all jokes aside. There is something weird + cool about seeing Chibind Yirung as a venerable elder, since he tends to fade from Ruund versions of the Lunda foundational epic after the "Lueji has a new boyfriend" part and the "no woman ruler >:( " part. 

Hey guys, hope y'all have been doin ok. Summer approaches! Been pleased with this past semester of grad school and v. pleased with my first semester of teaching! The SWN game I’ve been running for our HS’s freshly minted tabletop club is about to go on hiatus for the break after this next session + the grading period is coming to a close, so it’s like a sprint to the finish line rn. I’ll maybe do a retrospective post once things settle? Either that or finally get around to talking about PF2E’s Mwangi Expanse. 

We aren’t doing any of that today lmao, just want to ramble about some weird shit I saw. There's a cool new Maya exhibition happening at the Kimbell, a nearby museum that I've never visited, and I was planning a trip when I stumbled across this incredible digital placard for a precolonial South-Central African piece. Go look at it, listen to the audio stuff, etc.

To be clear, I don’t think that this is a very good explanation of the piece. There are quibbly minor issues: the description of the Lueji/Ruwej myth is bad and nerfs my girl and doesn’t engage with the key revisionist work on the topic like Jeff Hoover’s The Seduction of Ruwej or Manuela Palmeirim’s Of Alien Kings and Perpetual Kin, even the structuralist myth-interpretation stuff with the assumed linear spread of Luba political institutions into Lunda polities is being questioned, it should be at least mentioned that the idea of the hunter-chieftain here is itself an inversion of the “men who celebrate women”/the Luba fertility cult movement-turned-constellating network of titles (the pre-19th century Luba Empire is prolly a spook but what we now think was going on is way more interesting)…which is why there’s a later focus on the great ancestress Ruwej prostrating herself before the foreign hunter-king. All that aside, even the most important stuff is left out! Like here, from the text:

“From their union, if rather indirectly, came the Mwata Yamvo rulers of the Lunda, to whom the Chokwe not only paid tribute, but also regularly furnished sculptors who produced many kinds of court art almost up to the present day. By association, Chibinda Ilunga became a culture hero and model for Chokwe chiefs as well.”

What the fuck?? That’s not what was going on. At the time this statue was fashioned, Chokwe merchant-caravaneers working the slave and ivory trades had already made their way into the Aruwund/Ruund/nuclear Lunda heartland and sat as rulers over them. Conflicts had been sharpening in intensity since the 1840s but things were dire at this point - the capital was sacked in 1885 and thousands were enslaved, two years later the new one was torched and most of the titleholders fled the area with their people. There’s about a solid decade of Chokwe rule before (a very brief summary) some old Lunda titleholders combine with the Belgians to launch a reconquista. The Chokwe were almost certainly influenced by the broader dissemination of Ruund stories and self-identification that eventually formed the "Lunda commonwealth", but their use of the Chibind Yirung story (the “culture hero” - funny enough, the brilliant Manuela Palmeirim has a fantastic paper out + available to read for free about the Lunda mythological system discussing why conventional culture-hero models are bad lmao) is more about trader-lords flush with victory attempting to borrow the prestige of Ruund historical heroes. Btw this is also one possible reason why representations of women are so rare in the big collections of Lunda art when the various peoples of the vast Lunda commonwealth are ultimately forming identities around the idea of feminine rule through Ruwej, especially compared to Luba stuff which is p much obsessed with the female form - it’s representative of Chokwe self-insertion and their own cultural hallmarks. David Gordon mentions it here: 

“Surprisingly given the prominence of Luij [same lady as Lueji or Ruwej] in the Lunda oral tradition, there is no similar celebration of the female body in Lunda art. Much of the Lunda art represented in international collections can be connected to Chokwe caravan merchants, who by the late 19th century conquered and dominated the nuclear Rund court. Their iconic representations of Lunda kingship include the famous masculine representation of the hero of the oral tradition, Chibind Yirung [same guy as Cibind Yiroong or Chibinda Ilunga, standardized orthography is a forgotten dream in this field.] Provenance is difficult to establish, and there is much discussion over what actually constitutes Chokwe art. It is unclear whether the most representative figurines were carved by the Chokwe or emerged from their trade with Lunda artist and clients.”

Not even the first time I've seen a bizarre read like this from a museum. There’s some kind of vast pro-Chokwe conspiracy at work, Lundabros...never fear, I will continue to ensure that all offending articles are fact-checked by true Mwantyavswano patriots.


If you haven't listened to the audio clips please please please go back to the Kimbell's page for the statue and play the children's version. I just did it again and it's still so good:

  • Before the audio even starts, labeled "Chininda Ilunga"
  • Who chose to make this a conversation between an adult woman trying to sound like a kid and the statue itself?
  • What is that voice for Chibinda goddamn....
  • "So...we married!" dude has no idea why Ruwej let him hit
  • The wooshing when he says "MAGIC~✨"
  • Why is the girl-woman so skeptical, she sounds like she's judging Chibinda super hard (@_@;)
  • "You make the chief laugh" was the actor doing a Coming To America thing? 
Literally perfect. I mean that. I know I'm poking fun and was nitpicking the serious part of the placard but I really truly love that there's a children's version. They're fucking trying, y'know? People don't even try on stuff about Congolese art meant for adults. And the info in that bit was pretty solid! Getting other people to experience this is all I want out of this post. Kinda wish there was a cartoon about this sarcastic kid and the dead magician-hunter-chief Chibind Yirung exploring the Kimbell. 


  1. I listened to both and prefer the children's version as well. Impressions largely matched yours. Chibinda sounds like he belongs on All Things Considered (not a knock on that show, just an observation) and the "So...we married and created an empire," line is hysterical.
    For all that, as you said, they are trying to get people interested, and that's pretty cool, and it's an amazing piece!


    1. Oh god I hate how well that works: "this is Chibinda Stalker-From-East, filling in for Mary Louise Kelley." There's something sweet about how awkward it is, honestly.


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