Understanding the Cultural Meaning of Selected African Ndop Statues: The Use of Art History Constructivist Inquiry Methods

By Chanda, Jacqueline; Basinger, Ashlee M. | Studies in Art Education, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

Understanding the Cultural Meaning of Selected African Ndop Statues: The Use of Art History Constructivist Inquiry Methods


Chanda, Jacqueline, Basinger, Ashlee M., Studies in Art Education


In the past, knowledge of art from non-Western cultures was often based on the analysis of the physical characteristics, which were interpreted from the perspective of "mainstream" or Euro-based cultures. For example, sculptural forms in African art were often described as aggressive, bulging, simple, primitively executed, and out of proportion, while wood statues were interpreted as "idols" and "fetishes." These descriptions and interpretations perpetuate misconceptions, parochial views, and stereotypes about African art and the cultures that produced them. They do not take into consideration the perspective of the culture from which the works come and consequently distort their purpose and significance.

Understanding the purpose and significance of African works of art from the perspective of the people who created them requires studying them in their cultural context. Some would assert that it is not possible to understand something in the way that another culture does (Blocker, 1993). Though it may not be possible to fully understand the cultural meanings generated by the object, one can gain insight into some of its messages through empathetic understanding. Empathetic understanding is the ability to share someone else's thoughts and feelings about something and see how another culture's philosophy of life, works of art, and other ideas reflect and parallel aspects of your own (Chanda, 1995).

Even within African cultures, the purposes and meaning of an African object are not fully revealed to everyone. Understanding of African objects by Africans comes in stages and over time. It depends to a large extent on one's age and status in an African society and the context in which the object is seen or used (Chanda, 1993b). For example, a mask seen by an uninitiated young person in many African cultures might simply recall a story or song heard at some point while growing up; where as the same mask to an initiated older person carries a deeper meaning related to social order or cosmological beliefs. This means an art object can provide multiple layers of information that would generate layers of understanding. This is especially true of Ndop statues from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Zaire).

Ndop statues are wooden sculptures said to be portraits of Kuba kings who reigned from the 17th to the 20th centuries. Examples of these statues are found in museums through out the world, Belgium, Switzerland, England, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the United States. In and of themselves they represent the embodiment of history and the royal culture of the Kuba kingship. Ndop statues were chosen for this study because each object or attribute attached to the statue, such as the sword or the hat, relates to some aspect of the kingship, the history, and the culture of the Kuba people. By studying the attributes and their functions, art historians have been able to glean insight into the meaning of the kingship to the Kuba society. But what was the purpose and significance of these statues? The statues functioned in several ways and have several layers of meaning. For the most part they were used to remind people of the power of the various kings, their contributions to the Kuba society, and to represent the king in his absence (Vansina, 1972).

This study examines attempts by American children (ages 8-9) to construct a contextual understanding of a series of related artworks from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, using art history constructivist inquiry methods. Contextual understanding means comprehending the purpose and significance of the works in the same manner that the culture that created it would. As we have seen, there can be several layers of understanding connected with African works of art, depending on the knowledge level of the observer. One may understand the composition, the subject matter, the economic value, the expressive quality, the underlying social significance, etc. …

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