Kongo , Objet art of the ethnic Kongo - African-art.net
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All of the ethnic groups belonging to the Kingdom of Kongo used similar themes for their sculptures: maternities, seated kings, prestigious objects, nail fetishes…

Amongst their artistic production, the Kongo are renowned for their magical African statues or ‘Nkissi’, and nail statues called ‘N’kondi’, but also for their funerary sculpture and maternities. They also produced masks and other diverse objects.

The masks are either masculine or feminine and are used by the diviner or ‘Nganga’. Generally, the sculpture is naturalistic, covered with white clay, symbolizing the spirits of the dead.

The Vili make the same type of sculptures as the Kongo.

Our aim is to help you discover the role played by these masks and African statues through their religious beliefs and lifestyle of these ethnic groups.

The History and Geography of the Kingdom of Kongo

The ancient Kingdom of Kongo stretched along the coastal states of Central Africa, at the mouth of the Congo and to the north west of Angola. Outside of the shared language, albeit with varying regional dialects, the cohesion of the different groups was based upon a social system of lineages and clans, close to that of the other Bantu peoples. The society is founded around women, who have sacred status as they transmit life and legitimize membership to a particular lineage, creating in this way, both a lineage and  guarantee of exerting power. According to a proverb “only the mother knows the father of her child”.

Around 15 ethnic sub groups claim to descend from this kingdom:

  • The Solongo, Woyo, Yombe, Vili, all along the coasts from north to south.
  • The Manianga, Kongo from the lower Kongo, and Ndibu towards the Pool Malebo (a lake crossed by the River Congo, and of which the downstream outlet is near Kinshasa and Brazzaville).
  • The Sundi, Lari, and Ntandu to the north of the territory.
  • The Hangala, Beembe, Dondo, Kamba, Kuni (Kunyi).

The name of the group comes from ‘ku ngo’ or ‘panther country’, the totemic animal of a great number of clans, a symbol of strength, bravery and power.

The origin of this kingdom is linked to the creation of the Mbanza Kongo chieftaincy, both town and capital of the Kingdom of Kongo, from whence came several influxes, in the form of latent colonization, and which led finally, to the creation of a kingdom with 6 provinces.

The structure of the Kingdom was as follows:

  • The villages, governed by a matrilineal lineage.
  • Districts, directed by officials named by the King.
  • 6 provinces run by governors, advisors to and chosen by the King as well but who benefited in reality from a certain autonomy.

The King was named by an assembly called the Council of Governors, made up of the aristocracy. He holds religious, judicial, political and economic powers. His physical being is sacred. He decides if there is to be a war, manages commerce with foreign countries and receives taxes from his vassals. When he passes judgement, he sits upon a leopard’s skin, wears a necklace made of teeth, a hat, and holds a sceptre and a fan. From a religious point of view, the King is as powerful as the Nkisi statue; to touch him is to be healed. The King is the only person that can enter into contact with the dead during trials where criminals and enemies of the state are put to death.

From 1482 onward exchanges were made with the Portuguese, and at this point the Kingdom of Kongo must have existed for at least one century. Missionaries came to the Kongo and members of the aristocracy left for Portugal. By the end of the 15th century the King of Kongo is Christian, but the people keep their traditional beliefs. By the end of the 16th century the kingdom has weakened under the pillaging of the ‘Jaga’ people. During the17th century the kingdom is broken up and the provinces no longer recognise a central authority and become independent chieftaincies.

Kongo Beliefs and Initiation rites:

The Kongo people believe that the earth and the sky are opposed in the same way as earth and water. The master of the skies is Pulu Bunzi and the Nkisi, or genies or spirits of the earth are opposed to him. The water spirits are called Bisimbi. Mbumba, the rainbow, is the master of the terrestrial waters, and is a large snake that holds back the waters sent from the sky as well as commanding the rain.

Mbumba is the master of both feminine and masculine initiation:

  • The masculine initiation ‘Khimba’ takes place between 10 and 18 years of age. Its aim is to teach everything needed for integration into society as well to acquire religious knowledge. The teachers are priests, warriors, hunters and dancers.
  • The feminine initiation or ‘Tshikumbi’ allows the young girl to learn the rules of everyday life, food, sexual… and social, religious and magical knowledge in order to be prepared for marriage.

The Hierarchical Structure of the Kongo:

The chief or ‘Mfumu’, is only consecrated if he owns the sacred basket or box of his predecessor. This box, made out of bark contains the relics of ancestors placed in antelope horns (hair, pieces of skin, nail…). In order to pay homage to his ancestors, the chief must take out the horns and spray them with the blood of a white chicken or an antelope.  The symbols of the chief’s investiture found among Kongo statues are:

-        A fly-whisk, which is for the most part, made from a buffalo’s tail fixed onto a sculpted handle.

-        Iron bracelets.

-        A necklace made of blue and red pearls and another made from rodent or carnivore teeth.

-        A bonnet made from pineapple fibres and sometimes decorated with leopard claws.

-        An iron bell that is struck when the chief drinks on important occasions.

The chief’s wife, her main role being to transmit the peace of the ancestors.

The priest, or ‘Nganga’, and who is also a diviner. He is responsible for the cults and knows how to calm or anger the invisible forces.

The healer heals by using plants and magic.

The blacksmith forges the chief’s iron bracelets and removes the relics from the deceased chief’s bodies.

Hunters and former warriors.


Kongo Sculptures

All of the ethnic groups belonging to the Kingdom of Kongo used similar themes for their sculptures: maternities, seated kings, prestigious objects, nail fetishes…

Statues of Kongo women :

-        Most often, the mother is sitting, her legs crossed (this position shows respect, and is how people receive or are received. It is also how the chief’s wife is buried).

-        The mother might be standing with her child on her back, in her arms, on her hip, or on her shoulders.

-        The mother might be kneeling (a position of respect), the child laid on her thighs, in her arms, sitting on her hip or standing by her side.

-        The mother might be sitting on a chair, the child placed on her thighs or stuck on her back.

She does not look at the child. The face is realistic. The open eyes are made from a piece of glass on which a pupil is painted or else made from earthenware with a painted or pierced pupil. The mother’s mouth is open with classic mutilations to her teeth (the incisors are filed down or expose a rectangular space. Tattoos, which have an erotic meaning or are a symbol of fecundity, are sometimes present on the body. There is smooth patina. The coiffure may recall the chief’s bonnet made from pineapple fibres or it may be pointed or round. The mother might wear sets of jewellery: rings on her wrists and ankles and the chief’s necklace made from leopard teeth. Among the Yombe people there is sometimes a cord above the breasts. The mother can be naked or dressed in a loincloth.

The child is often laid across the mother’s knees, and she is often breastfeeding. When the mother is standing or kneeling, the child might be standing by her side, on her back, or sitting horseback across her hip or shoulders.

Kongo Funerary Sculptures

Kongo funerary sculptures are often allegorical. They present the deceased along with the symbolic attributes of their profession (for example a drum for a drummer). They serve not only to remember the deceased, but also to prepare his spirit. To this end, libations of palm wine are made on the tomb and sometimes even on the statue of the deceased himself. Chicken or goat’s blood and food are also given to the deceased. These statues are mostly made out of lightweight wood, with black, red and white colourings.


Kongo Masks

The masks are either masculine or feminine and are used by the diviner or ‘Nganga’. Generally, the sculpture is naturalistic, covered with white clay, symbolising the spirits of the dead. The women’s masks carry the traditional mutilations to the teeth: a space left between the incisors or filed down to points. The masks were worn during initiation ceremonies or at the funerals of the most important people. They also had a judiciary function. Yombe masks have realistic traits, such as the delicately sculpted ears and pointed teeth. Woyo masks are often covered in pigments that create a geometric decoration.


Magical Kongo Statues

The ‘Nkisi’, or magical statues, only attain their value once they have been consecrated by the diviner (Nganga) who adds diverse magical substances (leaves from sacred trees, earth taken from the cemetery…) that are contained in a hard resinous paste stuck on the statue. The matter obtained from this mix is sometimes covered by a mirror, or contained in a cylinder fixed onto the statue and sealed by a mirror.

In order to be effective, the requests made to the statue must be accompanied by prayers and sacrifices. The statue might also, at the same time be covered with red marks and white clay, the latter being the colour of the dead and which allows witches to be seen.  Other accessories might be added such as shells symbolizing the rainbow Mbumba, cowrie shells, the symbol of fecundity, and antelope horns recalling this mythical animal.

The statue attains its function once it has been consecrated by the diviner. The sculptor does not know the role that will be attributed to the statue. Consequently, it is not possible to determine in advance, the exact function of the statue from its physical appearance.

The statues serve to protect the village, to ensure the warrior’s victory, allow the hunt to be plentiful, identify thieves and witches, protect women and their unborn children during pregnancy, enforce the observation of taboos and thus avoid any misdemeanours, smooth out disagreements, avoid diluvial rainfall, reconcile enemies…

The nail statues are called ‘N’kondi’. They have the appearance of a wooden person, and are often very big. Their eyes are marked by a piece of metal, mica, glass or shell and give the statue a distant and disturbing look. The colour is often red as this symbolizes the mediating role of the deceased. They have a judicial function. With this in mind they are often sculpted with a threatening hand holding a knife or a spear. They hunt down the guilty party or witch. The N’kondi are even more powerful due to the human sacrifice that is made at their consecration. If the N’kondi is used by a witch it may be harmful.

The nails of the N’kondi can have several functions:

-        To remind the N’kondi of a request that was made to him.

-        To push the spirit to take revenge on the party responsible for causing suffering. The knife or spear brandished by the statue corroborates this act of vengeance.

-        To seal an agreement.

-        To destroy an enemy or witch.

-        To recover to good health.

The nails, screws or tacks symbolize a request for a problem, and are licked before being put into the N’kondi.

The N’kondi can also take on the aspect of an animal (sometimes a dog) with one or two heads. The dog is renowned for being able to sniff out night spirits and evil people. The Janus aspect is supposed to double the visual capacities of the animal.

The Figures of the Kongo Ancestors

These statues are destined to be worshiped in the home and are sculpted from rare wood essences. They represent the deceased that is to be consulted at important moments. They are the object of regular worship and are smothered in palm oil, sometimes mixed with red sawdust or small bits of chewed and spat out kola nuts. This treatment creates a shiny, slightly crusty patina.

Other Diverse Kongo Objects

The key identifiable objects are:

-        Antelope horn whistles used before the hunt in order for it to be plentiful.

-        Whistles used by the diviner to attract the attention of the spirits when healing a sick person, to call for or stop the rains. These whistles are decorated with small miniature statues.

-        A wooden bell with a metal or wooden clapper that serves, like the whistle, to call the spirits of the ancestors. If it is used by the diviner it can chase away witches.

-        Slit drums would warn the uninitiated not to approach.

-        The chief’s ivory horn was used on special occasions, for wars, alliances, funerals and weddings of notaries…

-        Sceptres and staffs belonging to the chief are often decorated with the statue of a woman, recalling the matrilineal nature of their society.

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