Zulu Lidded Vessel - South Africa

Of the carved prestige objects produced by traditional South African artists, lavish vessels such as this example certainly rank among the most elaborate. Cut from a single block of wood, they are worked on a larger scale than most other objects from the region and bear an unusually high degree of surface decoration. The taut poise of the angled arms, the clearly demarcated cap, and the belly-like body perched on bent legs together provide an strong impression of abstract anthropomorphism.

Considered icons of African art, Zulu vessels such as this are found in a number of the great museums and private collections worldwide, including the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Their precise function is not known, but the dramatically ridged surface patterning they bear is similar to the carving found on many southern African snuff containers. Thus it has been suggested that this type of vessel may have been used by chiefs as a storage jar for tobacco or snuff. Other scholars have surmised that they were produced as examples of the crafts of Africa for the Great Exhibitions of nineteenth-century Europe.

Third quarter of 19th century
21” h 14” w
Provenance: Alvin and Estelle Abrams, Connecticut, acquired before circa 1980; Sotheby’s 1992; Kevin Conru, Brussels
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