The Mkwawa Portrait Conundrum: A Quest for Facial Similitude

Dominicus Zimanimoto Makukula


This paper reports the findings of an investigation that was carried out to determine the accuracy of the facial likeness of Paramount Chief Mkwawa to his representative portrait created in 1954, with the intent to complement the missing part of his face following the return of his skull from Germany where it had been kept for 56 years. Since its creation, the portrait sought to approximate the actual face of Mkwawa, which had been badly damaged from a gunshot wound and the ensuing maceration process by Tom von Prince before he shipped the skull to Bremen, Germany in July 1898. Since its return to the then Tanganyika, local and foreign researchers have engaged in endless debate on its authenticity while ignoring discussions on Mkwawa’s facial appearance in most of their publications on the topic. Employing the Imitation Theory of Art, this paper extends the inquiry on the legitimacy of Mkwawa’s skull to his portrait, created to complement the missing flesh on the skull. Data for the study had been collected using critical interviews and document review. Meanwhile, analysis entailed a comparative examination of the facial features on the original photograph of Mkwawa’s head against photographs of his lineal descendants. Besides, a review was carried out of the artist’s skills of portraiture and knowledge of principles of art, as well as narratives of the respondents on the portrait creation process. Findings show that the portrait depicted a striking facial resemblance to Mkwawa’s descendants involved in his portrait creation process except for the spiritual aura and the imagined facial expression of the paramount Chief himself.

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