Gallery of reconstructed portraits

Created: 2012
Published: 2012
Modified: 2017

The reconstructed portrait of Njinga Mbande

Njinga Mbande

The Mbundu people of South-West Africa were living across several territories. The family that ruled the larger Ndongo realm had been home to Njinga Mbande (*1582–†1663 ce). She started her political career when she joined a conference as an envoy for the incumbent ngola (= ‘ruler’) of Ndongo, her brother. At these peace talks in 1622 ce she negotiated with the Portuguese, who were trying to conquer the land that they mistakenly called ‘Angola’. On this occasion Njinga Mbande bargained a treaty with the Portuguese and converted to Christianity. She was baptized ‘Dona Ana de Sousa’ after her new godmother, the Portuguese governor's wife. The treaty was never met, however, and her brother's death put her in a struggle for the control over Ndongo. As self-proclaimed ruler Njinga Mbande became an important opposer of the Portuguese efforts to occupy Angolan inlands. She concluded alliances with both the Dutch and the rebellious Imbangala bands and led armies into battle with the Portuguese, sometimes successfully. In the course of events she wasn't able to hold her position in Ndongo. Forced to find another base of power, she overthrew the neighbouring realm of Matamba and made herself sovereign of that country. There she waged war against surrounding states. When the Dutch, her most important ally, left the region in 1648 ce she changed her approach. Njinga Mbande ultimately made peace with Portugal and she enjoyed some quiet years before she died of old age. Although she was made a symbol of an African freedom fight in modern times, she never opposed the mass shipment of African slaves towards Brazil. The Portuguese, the Dutch, and the Mbundu states: all participated in the slave trade.

How should we picture the appearance of Njinga Mbande? The Italian missionary Cavazzi stayed at the court of Njinga Mbande during the last three years of her life. He wrote an extensive (though biased) report about her story en made a few coloured drawings in which she appears. After his death his writings were published with engravings that were loosely based on these handmade drawings. According to his verbal report Njinga Mbande was a small and, to his particular taste, ugly woman. She had white marks on her hands, metal rings on her arms and ankles, and she wore a necklace. Her face had occasionally been decorated with coloured cosmetics. She wore a piece of cloth from her waist until her heels. On her head she often wore a traditional kitundo (= ‘crown’), a four fingers wide band of bark from the nsanda tree that was typically worn by women. The drawings confirm this description more or less. In his texts Cavazzi also mentions a piece of cloth that covered her breasts and another sheet that she wore over her shoulders, next to an entirely Portuguese wardrobe. The drawings represent her both bare-chested and with her breasts covered, but not in Portuguese clothes. Instead of the traditional kitundo the drawings show Njinga Mbande with a European crown, which is mentioned in the verbal report as a favoured alternative. The engravings in the printed version of Cavazzi's report show her with a completely conceived ‘pineapple’ crown. Additionally Njinga Mbande appears in the handmade drawings with objects that are not to be found in the texts: a long, dark coloured, possibly Dutch (?) smoking pipe, a ceremonional axe, a walking stick, and bow and arrows. Her hair is shown indistinctively.

As Cavazzi wrote for a European, Christian audience and he had to create a both acceptable and entertaining story, it's well possible he played with the truth in his description of Njinga Mbande. The European crown, the extra garments, and some details of the decorations — pearls, silver, gold, and little reliefs of cross and crown — probably don't match her true appearance.

Which style was generally accepted at the time of Njinga Mbande? And, more importantly, which style was the indigenous one at that time in Angola? Traditional African artwork from the Sub-Saharan region includes hardly any two-dimensional depictions. It mainly consists of sculptures, masks, weapons, and ceremonial objects. It's therefore not easy to determine a style that fits a two-dimensional portrait. As Blier points out, there are elements to be identified that characterize the ‘African’ way of depicting, regardless of the dimensions. There is a strong focus on the human figure, shapes are often represented more abstract than natural, and symmetry is often accompanied by asymmetry within the same design. The so-called ‘Benin Bronzes’ are almost two-dimensional. These ‘bronzes’ are in fact brass plaques with high relief images. They were made during the sixteenth and seventeenth century ce. The Edo culture that provided these plaques can't necessarily be compared to the Mbundu culture, but its image conventions may serve as a guideline. The human figures on these Edo plaques are always represented in front view. The heads are too big for their bodies. The eyes, nose, and mouth are in turn too big in comparison with the head. The limbs, on the other hand, are relatively short and the upper bodies look somewhat stretched. Size follows importance: important elements and people with high status were depicted larger than less important ones. The appearing figures were cast in relief, but the images as a whole lack depth or perspective. All elements seem to float in an undetermined space, surrounded by flat decorations. The Edo plaques are without use of colour, in contrast to some other African artifacts. Especially older works of art contain one or more of a particular range of colours. These colours are black, white, red, and all kinds of earth tones, from ochre to brown.

The following details were included in the reconstructed portrait. Njinga Mbande's appearance was reproduced according to critically selected elements from the descriptions of Cavazzi. She wears the kitundo and a long piece of cloth round her waist. Her body has been adorned with cosmetics around her eyes, metal rings on her arms (and ankles, though not visible), and a necklace. It's not clear what the mentioned ‘white marks’ on her hands should look like. They were added as white lines. She holds a ceremonial axe and a smoking pipe. The axe is a mixture of the axe that is shown in the Cavazzi drawings and other traditional axes form central and southern Africa. The shape of the axe was exaggerated to stress the importance of the object, for it indicates the high status of Njinga Mbande. The handle was coloured red, because it's a symbol of war and power. The size, shape, and colour of the smoking pipe simply conform to the drawings. The portrait as a whole complies with the image conventions of the Benin Bronzes. The design of the fabric was derived from them, as well as the decorations of flowers and the pattern of dots in the background. Njinga Mbande was depicted with uncovered breasts. Cavazzi mentions that Mbundu women tended to keep their breasts (“shamelessly”) uncovered and his drawings partly show her that way. This practice (or image convention?) is confirmed by various examples of traditional female figures. The patterns in the corners of the portrait were designed to add something of symmetry–asymmetry: the composition of the patterns is symmetrical, the patterns themselves are not. All colours were chosen from the colour scheme that fits older African art from the Sub-Saharan region.

Do you have a suggestion or remark concerning this reconstruction? All comments are much appreciated.


  • Giovanni Antonio Cavazzi da Montecuccolo, Missione evangelica nel Regno de Congo (a.k.a.Araldi Manuscript’), Italia: Modena: Famiglia Araldi (1668 ce). The appearance of Njinga Mbande is mentioned in book II, chapters 7, 8, 12, and 17. Cavazzi was an Italian Capuchin missionary. He started this manuscript in Africa and finished it in Europe. An adaptation of this work was published in Bologna in 1687 ce with the title Istorica Descrizione de tre regni Congo, Matamba ed Angola. The manuscript contains handmade, coloured drawings, which served as inspiration for the engravings in the printed edition. Ezio Bassani published the drawings in 1987 ce, in Quaderni Poro, no. 4. The depictions of Njinga Mbande probably weren't intended as true portraits, since the drawings represent her much too young: she was at least 76 years old when Cavazzi first met her. Though the drawings are charming, Cavazzi wasn't a skillful artist and he pictured her through European eyes. The text of book II is a biased report that primarily deals with the alleged transition of Njinga Mbande from a brutal savage into a good Christian. Cavazzi is very negative about African culture. John Thornton made an English translation of Volume A of the manuscript, which he published on the website of the African American Studies Program at Boston University.
  • Suzanne Preston Blier, ‘Africa, Art, and History: An Introduction’ in: Monica Blackmun Visonà (et al.) A History of Art in Africa (London 2000 ce) 14–23.
  • The so-called ‘Benin Bronzes consist of thousands of brass plaques from the Edo culture. They were taken from a palace in historical Benin (now in Nigeria) and were scattered around museums in Europe and America. Some beautiful examples of these Edo plaques:
    • Plaque with warrior and attendants, usa: New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1990.332 (Nigeria 16th–17th century ce).
    • Plaque with seated ruler, two kneeling attendants, and two Europeans, Great Britain: London: The British Museum, aoa 1898 0115.23 (Nigeria 16th century ce).
    • Plaque with ruler on horseback and attendants, Deutschland: Berlin: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin: Ethnologisches Museum, III C 8056 (Nigeria 16th–17th century ce).
  • Examples of sculptures in traditional Sub-Saharan art representing female figures:

Alternatives for ‘Njinga Mbande’: Ginga / Gingha / Gingua / Jinga / Njingha / Nzinga / Nzingha / Nxinga / Nxingha / Singa / Zhinga / Zinga / Zingha / ZinguaAmbande / MbandiAna / Ann / Annade Sousa / de Souza.

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