Object Lesson: Mbwoong Ntey (Palm Wine Cups)

Two elaborately carved wooden palm wine cups

Kuba artist, Mbwoong ntey (palm wine cups), c. 1800–1930. Wood. Bequest of Victor K. Kiam, 77.188 and 77.217.

Carved drinking vessels served as a sign of the authority of a Kuba chief. These drinking vessels are used in the ritual drinking of palm wine. Offering palm wine to guests is a typical form of Kuba hospitality. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, elaborate carved wooden cups for drinking palm wine established the title and refinement of the owner, serving as display pieces as well as functional objects. These cups were often carved in the non-figural style characteristic of much Kuba art. In the cup on the left, the geometric patterns incised into the neck and top of the head and the keloids patterns on parts of the forehead contrast dramatically with the smoothness of the face. This cup stands on a base that represents a foot. These visual cues suggest the importance of the owner of the cup.

The second cup is non-figural and characterized by patterns that are uniquely Kuba. Much of Kuba art incorporates the intricate geometric design system called buina. A careful look reveals how the design adapts to the shape of the cup. I am tempted to state that by incorporating this technique of design, the object can be read in multiple ways. For example, when this cup is placed upside down, it may look similar to an intricately carved drum. However, the importance of the cup lies in the utilitarian function of a drinking vessel, which shapes community (communal drinking of palm-wine).

Ndubuisi Ezeluomba, Françoise Billion Richardson Curator of African Art

NOMA is committed to uniting, inspiring, and engaging diverse communities and cultures through the arts — now more than ever. Your gift will make a direct and immediate impact as NOMA welcomes our community back to the museum and sculpture garden, plans new exhibitions, and develops virtual and at-home arts education resources for school partners.