A Symbol of African Power and Prestige

Image of the Week: The sculpture of a black youth represents the continent’s commercial role in Europe. 

Jan Claudius de Cock, Africa. Signed and dated, 1704. Marble, 94.7 cm. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

The long, slender object supported by his left hand seems to be a ceremonial sword, an emblem of power used by the Akan people of the region. The long strip of cloth arcing over his body resembles the famous kente cloth also found in the area. It symbolizes rank, as do the ostrich feathers suspended from the string of pearls worn across his chest. A more fundamental reference to strength and unity seems to lie in the impressive fortress crown worn by the youth and the turtle upon which he rests his right foot.

Other objects relate to the wider relationship of the figure with European interests. The scroll held in his right hand may symbolize the official nature of the trade relationship between native leaders and the Dutch. Beyond its broader symbolic meaning, the crown could evoke the importance of Elmina Castle for both trading parties. Though the subject of the portrait medallion worn around the youth’s neck cannot be identified, it may simply refer to the patron who commissioned the statue. Such seems to be the case with several busts produced by de Cock of the same medallion-wearing black youth. 

Taken together, these attributes evoke a highly particular, local notion of Africa in the eyes of the Dutch who traded along the Gold Coast. Although idealized in this representation of a black youth, the figure reflects the actual state of commercial and political affairs between the Dutch and their African trading partners. Behind the beguiling image of childhood innocence and splendid regalia lies the corrupting influence of the slave trade, instigated by the insatiable demands for labor in the New World. And yet it may not be too speculative to see in this captivating figure the still hopeful expectation of the African continent for a more positive engagement with those coming to its shores.

The Image of the Black in Western Art Archive resides at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute, part of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also The Root’s editor-in-chief. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.