Within the complex, hierarchical social structure of the Kuba Kingdom, richly ornamented prestige caps were worn as a sign of the elite status of the owner. This prestige hat consists of three embellished panels, which hang from a small inverted cone located at the crown of the cap. Stitched onto the surface of the hat are alternating bands of blue and white beads, and filling the interstices are cowrie shells, arranged into parallel lines and x-forms. Further cowries adorn the lower outer perimeter of the hat, creating a blossom-like shape.
Given to Kuba men upon completion of an initiation rite, small dome-shaped raffia hats signalled their transformation into mature members of Kuba society. As a Kuba man moved up the social ladder, his headgear would change, with male titleholders commissioning local artisans to produce splendidly decorated prestige hats to signal his rank. The accumulation of materials on a Kuba man’s hat was a reflection of his accomplishments and upward mobility.
It is said that the Kuba are a people who cannot leave a surface without ornament. Cowrie shells are a potent symbol of wealth and prosperity across the African continent. As imported materials, glass beads were a costly luxury commodity in scarce supply. Among the Kuba, white and blue were colours specifically associated with positive attributes, such as religious purity, prominence and leadership. Used as a form of currency in the region, glass beads – when fixed onto the surface of a man’s laket – concerted economic value into symbolic wealth.
The variety of Kuba prestige hats displayed the virtuosity of Kuba artisans, through their slightly variations to the shape of the hat and their re-working of distinctive geometric motifs within the Kuba artistic repertory. Together, all these elements indicated that the wearer of this work of art was not only wealthy, but also an eminent and respected member of Kuba society.
The Metropolitan Museum
Smithsonian Learning Lab
Ex Private Collection, Italy