Kalyeem or “Prestige Hat,” c. 1950s, Republic of Congo, Africa, beads, cowrie shells, and “madiba cloth,” Gift of Miss Madge Rice, 1972.16.2.
The kingdom of Kuba, located in the center of present-day Democratic Republic of Congo, was settled during the early seventeenth century. Composed of various ethnicities, the kalyeem or “prestige hat” served as a display of one’s status and position within Kuba society. In this piece, three red beaded panels hang down the sides; these additional elements would have drawn attention to the wearer when they collide with the other panels or beads on the hat thus reinforcing the owner’s rank.
Cowrie shells and beads were also a popular form of currency prior to colonization and different colors often communicated various virtues that the wearer may possess. For instance, blue beads may symbolize religious purity or leadership. Kalyeem‘s were worn for various ceremonial occasions as wellas at funerals. But rather than being inherited by the surviving generations, the hat was buried with its owner alongside any other grave goods.