Kuba palm wine cup, Democratic Republic of the Congo

, Early 20th century


6 3/4 x 3 1/3 in. (17 x 8.5 cm)


About this object

This vessel is similar to one in the Metropolitan Museum, which is said to resemble a drum. A description in the catalogue for the Met says that drums were associated with Kuba royalty and also that these elaborately carved cups were usually owned by members of the aristocracy and other notables.

The cup has a narrow opening at the top that widens toward the base. It is supported by four “legs.” Like the Met cup, the incised designs on the cup are divided into three sections. At the top of the vessel are rows of bands, below them is a broader section of incised designs, and the base of the cup has a series of thin incised bands. The intersecting diagonal pattern and other motifs typical of Kuba objects are seen on this cup.

In the hierarchical Kuba kingdom, members of the aristocracy placed great importance on the beauty of their possessions, such as cosmetic boxes, pipes, spoons, textiles, and cups for drinking palm wine. Elite members of Kuba society had a large choice of highly-specialized artists to meet their needs – weavers, hat-makers, blacksmiths, jewelers, embroiderers, and pipe-makers. The degree of specialization was so developed that, for example, the artists who made the elaborately-carved Kuba pipes were divided into two groups: one made the pipe bowls, while another made the pipe stems.

The Kuba kingdom was founded in the early 1600s in present-day south-central DRC and reached its peak in the 19th century. The king had the authority to name individuals to positions of power rather than lineage and inheritance dictating the right to hold office, which led to great competition among those vying for positions of authority. Great importance was placed on personal display and members of the elite competed to outshine each other in terms of appearance and the possession of ornate objects, especially palm wine cups. Access to plentiful sources of palm wine was also important since men could increase their status in a community by distributing it generously.

Christaud Geary. “Two Days in Mushenge, Eliot Elisofon's Images of the Kuba (1947).” African Arts 26, no. 2 (April 1993): 72-77.

The Met. “Vessel: Drum.” The Collection. Accessed May 3, 2023.

The Met. “Vessel: Head.” The Collection. Accessed May 3, 2023.

The Met. “Vessel: Lidded.” The Collection. Accessed May 3, 2023.

King of the Bakuba tribe, Kasai Province, Belgian Congo, at the time of his coronation (1940s). Photo by Eliot Elisofon.