TRIBAL AFRICAN ART  

KONGO (BAKONGO) (also see related Vili and Yombe)

The Kongo may number about three million people.  Present in three countries – the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola and the Congo Republic – the Kongo occupy the region at the mouth of the Congo River. Numerous subgroups go to form the vast Kongo cultural complex, among which are the Vili, the Woyo and the Yombe. These tribes produce a diversity of artistic styles, with Kongo art being one of the best known. The king holds political, economic, judiciary, and religious power. He makes decisions about warfare, regulates commerce with foreign countries, and receives tributes from his vassals. When he renders justice, he is seated on the skin of a leopard, wears a hat and a necklace of teeth, and holds a commander’s staff and a fan. The king alone makes contact with the dead, at the time of judgments when he executes criminals and enemies of the State. In addition to the authority of the king, the nganga consecrates medications and is in charge of the cult. The healer works with the help of plants or magic.

The Kongo demonstrate the extreme complexity of their traditions on major occasions, such as the investiture of a chief or at funerals. The Kongo pantheon was small: one all-powerful god who gave healing powers to the king, to the nganga, and to the heads of cults. Besides their textiles of great renown, the Kongo had a funerary art of decorated steles and funerary statues in stone, very often depicting the chief seated cross-legged in a posture of reflection. Some of these statues were placed on tombs to aid the spirits of the dead to join the world of the deceased. >Wood sculptures represent royal wives, hunters, musicians, and healers. Their postures vary: sometimes they kneel in a position of respect, the head bent slightly backwards; women might be depicted seated with the child they hold by the neck or whom they are nursing. The cheeks are round, the face, carefully rendered, is realistic. The patina is smooth, the bust scarified. Elaborate geometrical patterns occur on the pedestal or the body, where they may be mingled with fine scarification marks. The figures were used to ward off danger to mothers during delivery and to protect the health of the child. A maternity statue’s effectiveness depended on the dignity of the figure and its youth (shown by the firmness of the breasts) and the jewelry, which augmented its beauty and status.

Although the majority of carved figures are made of wood, many important pieces in metal and ivory have been found. Among them are numerous metal figures clearly influenced by the Portuguese missionaries - statuettes of Christian saints, for example. In addition to the figures, crucifixes were also produced, in brass or bronze (using the lost-wax method of casting).

Nail and mirror fetishes are a unique and important phenomenon of Kongo sculpture. In the Kongo, all these fetishes are called nkisi. Nkisi means “medicine”. Historically, there were two types of nkisi, public and private, with some having vital democratizing roles, as sources of empowerment for rural residents and individuals outside the court. At most basic, the nkisi represents a container of empowering materials or “medicines” called bilongo. The magical substances may be blood along with animal, vegetable, and mineral matter. They are believed to invest the fetish figure with power and make it possible for the devotee to establish contact with the spirit. The “medicines” are generally secured in cavities in the stomach, head, or back to activate the work with the empowering agent. The nkisi, properly endowed with magic substances and additions by the nganga or doctor, had the power to act in a number of ways. There are four main types of nkisi, used for different purposes. Nkondi are fetishes of ill omen, usually brandishing a spear or a knife, while npezo are just as evil, but less menacing in attitude. Na moganga are benevolent figures, which protect against sickness and dangerous spirits. They help the hunter and the warrior; while mbula protect against witchcraft. All nkisi can be used for a variety of purposes and their meaning is ambivalent. The fetishes also may represent animals: two-headed dog, sometimes monkey.

The   commemorative statues known as phemba were designed for women who had lost a child and wanted another. These carvings, generally sophisticated and very graceful, were thought to favor such a happy event      

Masks are not generally known. There are rare specimens in some museums.

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