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Kongo textiles

In the Kongo Kingdom, the woven arts were emblematic of kingship and nobility. The coarse filament stripped from the fronds of the raffia palm tree served as the foundation of the Kongo weaving arts. This material imposed constraints that were overcome to produce varied and ingenious textile formats and structures.

The mpu was a supple knotted cap of golden raffia or pineapple fiber and a vital component of the chief's regalia, which also included a kinzembe mesh tunic, a woven chest bag, a charm bag (nkisi), a reliquary basket, the double bell, and a stool.

For Kongo, Vili, Yombe, Mbundu, and related peoples in northern Angola and the region formerly known as the Lower Congo, the mpu signified the authority invested in a person elected to an office of sacred leadership. Moraga writes that "it was also a potent cosmological symbol connecting the chief (mfumu), the kin group, and the village to a mythic place of origin as well as a specific territorial domain (nsi)."

There are several types of mpu hats. The ngunda (from the root ngu, meaning mother) is an unstructured domed style decorated with high-relief patterns that was bestowed on new chiefs during investiture rites. The ngola is a taller, conical cap worn by the paramount leaders of the Kongo realm.

Nearly all caps are constructed in spiral form, working from the center of the crown to the edge of the hat border. Mpu were designed to cover the spiritually vulnerable top of the head. The Congolese used to the term nzita to express their belief that hair grew in a circular pattern in this spot. According to Moraga, "The crows of caps are typically worked with a spiraling lattice or openwork pattern that differs from the interlacing geometric designs on the sides- as if to mimic the whorls of the hair while accentuating the extraordinary protection afforded by the headwear."

The Kinzemba is an openwork tunic made of raffia fiber. The Kinzembe is unique among Central African ceremonial garments for having a traceable chronology that spans several hundred years and for the fact that it can be linked with a specific historical figure. Ne Vunde was a Kongo ambassador to the Vatican who died in 1608, shortly after arriving in Rome. He is represented wearing a Kinzembe in a memorial bust commissioned by the Pope after Ne Vunde's death. In 1688 in Angola, Capuchin priest Girolamo Merolla recorded the following description of a Kinzembe: "The gentry have a kind of straw garment on their sholders, which reaches down to their wastes, curiously wrought, wit their arms coming out at two slits, and ends in two tassels which hang down on the right side. About their wastes they have a cloth girth, which on one side hangs down to the ground."



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