Last summer, we held an exhibition of African art drawn from the collection of Larry and Mattie Harms. The Harms’s generous donation of over 250 objects to the Oklahoma State University Art Collection—and the success of the resulting exhibition, “Building A Collection: The Larry W. and Mattie R. Harms Collection of African Art,” attracted attention. Last fall we were approached by Robert Navin, a collector who, like the Harmses, has worked with USAID, about a further gift of African metalwork and other objects. Mr. Navin’s proposed gift complemented and expanded upon the Harms Collection, and we were happy to accept it.
I was particularly intrigued by the knives included in Mr. Navin’s gift, as I had known little about this category of African art until I began researching the Harms Collection. That collection included several knives; most notably, the ikul that we included in the exhibition. Used by the Kuba people of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the ikul, or peace knife, is a ubiquitous element of men’s clothing.
I first saw the Harms Collection in person last spring, and soon thereafter had the opportunity, thanks to a research grant from Oklahoma State University, to travel to London to carry out research at the British Museum. Coincidentally, the British Museum has one of the world’s best collections of African art, and so I spent some time there looking at their collection of metalwork from across Africa.
The British Museum collection includes a large group of “throwing knives,” a category that, as their curators explain, is “attached by ethnographers to a wide variety of African artefacts which cannot be described as axe, spear or sword, and only some of which were designed to be thrown. It is therefore a problematic description for a group of artefacts whose full significance has yet to be understood.” These knives are found throughout Central Africa, from the Sahara to the Congo river basin, and encompass many regional variations. They are known to be used ceremonially and as currency in addition to their more evident uses.
The Navin Collection includes several examples of these knives, such as this one, collected in Kinshasa in 1982. Kinshasa is the capital city of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and was the site of much of Mr. Navin’s collecting. The Kusu people were traditionally hunters, but more recently have practiced an agrarian lifestyle in the DRC. Originally from further north, they assimilated the practices of various other cultures as they migrated to the Lualaba River valley, and this is reflected in their art and religious beliefs. Little is known about Kusu material culture, which is rarely found in public collections, but it is likely that, along with many other cultures in the region, they attached spiritual significance to the materials used to make this knife: iron and wood.
This Ngombe/Ngabake throwing knife was also collected in Kinshasa, in 1984. More highly elaborated than the Kusu knife, it includes carved and incised decoration along the blade and handle. The tiny parallel lines carved into the handle have worn down from frequent use, suggesting that this object was central to its original owner’s life. The form of this blade is similar to that of a traditional ngulu blade, used for executions—but by the twentieth century, these blades were purely ceremonial, and their primary significance was as status symbols rather than functional weapons or tools. Evidence of this can be seen in the prominence of the decorative protrusions along the top edge of the blade, and the relatively minimal hook at the tip.
As the above map makes clear (click the image for the high-resolution version), the knives I’ve presented in this post only begin to scratch the surface of the diversity of African metalwork. Thanks to the Harmses and Robert Navin, whose gifts both included several more examples, the Oklahoma State University Art Collection offers researchers the opportunity to study this diversity in person.