Mystery crown-head must have an interesting story
January 27, 2008 6:05 PM   Subscribe

My friend and I saw this lovely carved-wood head with a crown (picture) at the American Museum of Natural History in the hall of African artifacts. Now we're curious about it and its European-looking crown. Why did people make this?

When I got home from the museum, I remembered the name of the group of people who made the sculpture (from the label next to it) and looked it up in the museum's anthropology database, and I found out it was acquired in the 1940s or 1950s. The database didn't say much else, and I've forgotten the name and didn't bookmark the link (oops).

So, I figure this was probably made after the arrival of significant European influence, maybe as a gift. Can you tell me anything else? Or direct me to somebody who would know more? Or maybe just know of something similar?
posted by dreamyshade to Society & Culture (10 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Without more info it would be hard to say for sure.

But crowns like that aren't just European. Take a look at the wiki on Mansa Musa, a 14th century Mali king. He has a real Euro-look with his kingly accouterments.

I wouldn't say it is European necessarily but present in Mediterranean societies as crowns were the fashion throughout.
posted by munchingzombie at 6:22 PM on January 27, 2008

I think this is the piece you're looking for: (link to amnh). It seems to be from the Ekoi culture. You can click on a link on that page and see the original notes about the piece when it was cataloged. A quick google search on Ekoi doesn't yield much, but you should be able to contact the museum for further info.
posted by tractorfeed at 6:30 PM on January 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

tractor feed beat me to the link.

The associated "original catalog entry" says: "Human head, carved wood covered with skin, surmounted by crown, coiffure formed by small wooden pegs, plated cane ring base; damaged; piece of crown missing; bought at Obart Abara, origin Cross River Region, h. 18 1/2 ", Ekoi, Nigeria."

European influence, for sure.
For more information, why not contact: Goodman Naomi ( (212) 496-3403) Collections Assistant, African Ethnology. (No curator is listed for the African Art on the museum's staff list.)
posted by beagle at 6:39 PM on January 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

Take a look at the wiki on Mansa Musa, a 14th century Mali king. He has a real Euro-look with his kingly accouterments.

I'd wager that he has a real Euro look because that map was painted by Europeans who had a particular idea of what royal regalia should look like.
posted by CKmtl at 7:00 PM on January 27, 2008

Long before the europeans came to Africa, there was cross-sahara trade between the arabs and the africans. The ekoi culture is located at roughly the right spot to exchange jungle based goods with the desert based arab goods. The arabs in turn were trading with the europeans, so it's not unusual that some ornamentation would be transferred. Do you really thing iron, brass and copper work was independently invented in many parts of the world? No, it was spread out by, and those who spread it, probably taught a few basic designs.
posted by markovich at 7:05 PM on January 27, 2008

Queen Elizabeth II was crowned in 1952, at which time it was still a British colony. I suspect this carving is a portrait of her done around the time of the coronation.
posted by zadcat at 7:29 PM on January 27, 2008

at which time Nigeria was still a British colony, I should have written.
posted by zadcat at 7:30 PM on January 27, 2008

I'd wager that he has a real Euro look because that map was painted by Europeans who had a particular idea of what royal regalia should look like.

You're probably right. That picture is from the Catalan atlas.
One of the few (only?) descriptions of Mansa Musa comes from the Arab Historian Al-Umari and he mentions no crown:

The king of this realm sits in his palace on a big dais which they call banb� on a huge bench of ebony like a throne, large enough for any big and weighty sitter.� Over the dais, all around, are elephant tusks one against the other.� The king keeps his arems him, which are all of gold: a sword, a javelin, quiver, bow, and arrows.� He wears big trousers cut from about twenty pieces which none but he wears.� About 30 slaves (maml�k) stand behind him, Turks and others who are bought for him in Egypt.� One of them carries in his hand a parasol of silk surmounted by a dome and a bird of gold in the shape of a falcon.� This is borne on the king�s left.� His am�rs sit around and below him in two ranks to right and left.� Further away are seated the chief horsemen of his army.�In front of him there stands a man to attend him, who is his executioner (sayy�f), and another, called �poet�, who is his intermediary (saf�r) between him and the people.� Around all these are people with drums in their hands, which they beat.� People dance before the king; he is enjoys this and laughs at them.� Behind him fly two flags, and before him are tied two horses, ready for him to ride whenever he wishes.

Whoever sneezes while the king is holding court is severely beaten; he permits nobody to do so.� But if a sneeze comes to anybody he lies down face to ground to sneeze so that nobody may know of it.� If king ever sneezes, all those present beat their breasts with their hands.

They wear turbans with ends tied under the chin like the Arabs.� Their cloth is white, made of cotton which they cultivate and expertly weave.� It is called kam�siyy�. Their dress is like that of the people of the Maghrib: a jubba and a durr�ca without slit. Their brave horsemen wear golden bracelets. Those who have shown great bravery wear gold necklets also. If it is greater still they add gold anklets.� Whenever a hero adds another deed of bravery the king gives him a pair of wide trousers, and the more his deeds of bravery the bigger the size of his trousers. These trousers have narrow legs but a wide seat.� The king�s dress is special in that he lets a turban-end dangle down in front of him.� His trousers are of twenty pieces and nobody dares to wear the same.

posted by vacapinta at 7:33 PM on January 27, 2008

I concur with zadcat. There is every reason -- without other provenance -- to presume it was a contemporary piece, and Nigeria was definitely a British colony at the time. The crown's design is remarkably similar to the Imperial State Crown^.

That said, on seeing something like this I wouldn't be so quick to reduce it to "Western influence". Nigeria was contacted by Christian and Islamic cultures long before the colonial era, and the familiar range of crown designs was probably present among North African kingdoms dating back to the Roman era. Additionally, I wouldn't be quick to claim ownership of such designs by European cultures.

This design, however, has a pretty clear immediate model.
posted by dhartung at 11:33 PM on January 27, 2008

Related, from a Sotheby's auction:

Lot 31 is a rare Sierra Leone, probably Mende figure that is property of a Belgian private collection. "The offered figure, wearing a military tunic and royal crown," the catalogue entry for this lot observed, "has obvious elements of European influence. In addition to the European elements, the snake and the crown are distinct symbols seen in other Mende works of Art. When the English came to Sierra Leone in 1885 to declare it a Protectorate, and subsequently bring its colonial rule to an end, Queen Victoria's Paramount Chiefs were given replicas of her crown to acknowledge Britian's presence. These crowns became symbols of independence and were considered, for a long time, prestige objects of the highest rank."

Here's a Nigerian Queen Victoria at a Liverpool Museum.

Also, seconding zadcat since the posted one does look a lot more recent.
posted by lucia__is__dada at 3:50 AM on January 28, 2008

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