Pigment box with peaked corners

Kuba peoples
late 19th or early 20th century
more object details

General Description

African women in traditional societies enhanced their natural beauty with scarification and cosmetic preparations. For example, they applied black kohl to their eyes, painted their faces and bodies with a reddish powder or paste, and moisturized their skin with shea butter. These and other cosmetic substances required containers for mixing and storage. Natural objects such as gourds and shells were available to all, but those who could afford to stored their containers in pots, boxes, and bowls artfully carved by sculptors.

Kuba sculptors carved boxes in a variety of shapes and decorated them with incised and low-relief motifs that had specific names that were probably symbolic. The boxes, which are entirely covered with these geometric and figurative motifs, were used to store cosmetics (square and half-moon boxes) and grooming implements (rectangular boxes).

The peaked corners of the lid of the square box display circles surrounding the sun (phila or itang, a scallop-edged circle), a raised vessel-like form that may be the most abstract rendering of a design known as Mutu Chembe (head of God), and cowrie shells on a field of vertical lines. Multiple lines of chevrons (mbish angil) dominate the center of the slanted sides of the lid, and heart shapes, which complement the hearts on the center of the lid, wrap around the corners. The heart motif along with traces of basket weave and interlace patterns also appears on the box's well-worn bottom. This box was used to store twool (or tool), a reddish powder made from the inner bark of a hardwood tree that, depending on the liquid binder, was used like rouge or as dye for raffia fibers.

Adapted from

  • Roslyn A. Walker, Label text, Arts of Africa, 2015.

  • Roslyn A. Walker, The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), 236-237.