Object of the day: an early 19th century Vili drum (D.R. Congo)

Vili drum. Height: 100,3 cm. Image courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum (#E6754).

Vili drum. Height: 100,3 cm. Image courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum (#E6754).

The above Vili drum was donated to the Peabody Essex Museum by Captain William T. Julio in 1843. Julio was the captain of a vessel from Salem and active in the slave trade. Drums of this kind are rather rare. All known examples were collected during the last quarter of the nineteenth century in Loango, a region at the mouth of the Congo river (here another example which the Metropolitan acquired in 1897). There is no certainty about the use and significance of these drums. According to some authors, they were a status symbol for the ruler of the Vili, the Ma-Loango.

This drum is supported by a European man seated on a stool. Possibly this is one of the earliest documented ‘colon’-figures in wood. The man is wearing a black jacket, white pants, black boots, a black, brimmed hat and a hoop earring in his left ear. Possibly it’s a portrait of its collector, made as a souvenir. The figure holds a cup in one hand and a (gin?) bottle in the other. His reddish lower eyelids and squinted eyes do suggest he has already emptied the bottle. I wonder what this says about how the Vili (more specific the carver of this drum) regarded their European visitors ?

Vili drum Julio Peabody Essex Museum Salem head

ps The British Museum has a very similar Vili drum in their collection – which they received from Henry Christy after his death in 1865. Christy himself had acquired it from the Haslar Hospital Museum – founded in 1827 and containing artefacts collected by men serving in the British Royal Navy. In my view this example misses the charisma of the above drum, the face being less expressionistic and more rigid in its rendering. It could be a copy or reinterpretation by another Vili carver, but that’s speculation.

A Vili drum. Height: 103 cm. Image courtesy of the British Museum (#Af.4677).

A Vili drum. Height: 103 cm. Image courtesy of the British Museum (#Af.4677).