Beaded Bowl Figure

Cameroon, Grassfields, Kom, Laikom. ca. 1900
Wood, beads. 28 x 14 x 12 in. (70.6 x 35.3 x 30.5 cm)
Gift of William S. Arnett

This iridescent blue-beaded bowl figure belongs to a group of bead-covered figures representing the Kom royal family and their servants. The ensemble was probably carved during the later part of the reign of Foyn Yu who ruled from ca. 1865 to 1912.

The bowl figure represents a chisendo, an elite attendant in the serve of the king, or fon. It is both a functional object and a public symbol of kingly status. During court ceremonies, bowl figures were placed beside the fon and filled with kola nuts or flasks of palm wine, two essential ingredients offered to royal guests as gestures of hospitality. The bowl figure is also a representation of Kom concepts of support and status. For example, it embodies a supportive role because it holds and offers a vessel. Although represented seated (an indication of authority in many West African cultures), the chisendo’s legs are rendered as structural elements of the stool, reaffirming the concept of support for the king. Befitting a high-ranking court official is the face, a study of calm composure, and bodily accoutrements of prestige, the multi-lobed cap and white beads representing ivory bracelets and anklets.

The beads covering this sculpture were manufactured in Europe, either Venice or Bohemia, and imported into the Grassfields region of Cameroon. Until the 1920s beads remained a royal prerogative and they were often stripped from old sculptures and reused. Fortunately this carving’s original beaded covering remained intact until the 1950s when it was acquired by American Baptist Missionary Society member Gilbert Schneider. By then Laikom court ceremonies had changed and bowl figures fell out of use. Foyn Law-aw therefore used it as a commodity, giving it to Schneider as partial payment for his services in facilitating the procurement of a new tin roof for the palace.