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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Masterpieces of African Art : Yombe Wooden Nkisi Sculpture
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Yombe Wooden Nkisi Sculpture - PF.3671 (LSO)
Origin: Northwestern Congo
Circa: 20th th Century AD
Dimensions: 14.5" (36.8cm) high x 7.25" (18.4cm) wide
Collection: African
Style: Yombe
Medium: Wood, Cowrie Shell

Location: Great Britain
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This strikingly carved figure was made by the Yombe, a stylistic and social subdivision of the Kongo Empire. It portrays an individual of ambiguous sex (though probably male) standing with his hands on his hips, atop a slit drum. The head is slightly exaggerated and tilted backwards – the piece was designed to be viewed from above. The face is constructed from incised lines and light relief within a smooth oval form, with pointed-oval eyes, pierced pupils, a flat, broad nose and a well-modelled open mouth showing two incisors and a tongue. His head is surmounted with a cap with a central stud (?), from under which curls of hair are protruding. The body is stocky and unadorned, omitting genitalia, nipples and all other small points except for – unusually – the nails on fingers and toes. The centre of the stomach is carved into the likeness of a bilongo, an agglomeration (“charge”) of magical substances (such as grave earth and blood) that is attached to figures to endow them with magical properties. It does hold one foreign object – a cowrie shell, which were used as money in some parts of Africa and were always viewed as luxury items.

The Kongo (or Bakongo) people live in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola and the Congo. By the end of the 15th century the Kongo were living in a series of loosely- connected yet autonomous kingdoms, to include Kongo, Ngoyo, Vungu and Kakongo, followed by the increasingly powerful Bakongo kingdom, Loango, at the start of the 16th century. This coincided with the arrival of the first Portuguese explorers, with whom they had a reasonably peaceful relationship for some time. The kingdom absorbed European traditions and religion without bloodshed, and, more importantly, with much of their indigenous culture intact. While matters deteriorated subsequently, partly due to wars with other tribal groups (notably the Yaka), the Kongo tribes have survived relatively well as cultural entities and have seen a resurgence since their independence in 1960.

Indigenous Kongo society was based around the kingship model, with extensive arrays of civil servants and court officials not unlike that of the Nigerian Kingdom of Benin. Owing to the large size of the area in which they live, this group is often unable to communicate and has to rely upon French/Portuguese or creoles based upon them. Their religious beliefs have a far wider circulation, and are based around a reverence for the dead who are believed to be able to assist in the determination of future destinies. They are also believed to inhabit minkisi (singular nkisi), or charms, that can be appealed to for assistance in times of duress or uncertainty. The most notable pieces of Kongo sculpture are the Nkisi Nkondi figures – often referred to as nail fetishes – which carry a packet of magical materials known as a bilongo; the figures are insulted and “hurt” with explosions and nails so that they will carry out the wishes of their tormentor. Various other categories also exist, such as the ntadi limestone grave markers and maternity figures with characteristic open-mouths, almond-shaped eyes and detailed surface work.

This piece is unusual in that it has no bilongo, but only the semblance of one, although this is – in turn – fitted with magical materials, and that it is hardly conventional for these figures to stand atop anything else. However, this can be understood if one peruses the astonishingly detailed “vocabulary” of Kongo gestures (bimpangula), which extends to artworks; it is often possible to understand the “mood” of the piece and the sentiment it was intended to convey to its original audience. This pose – hands on hips – is known as pakalala, and is one of the most aggressive and confrontational poses in the repertoire. It is associated with wrestling and fighting generally, and is a play on the word paaka (“to cut meat into pieces”); even today it is unwise to adopt this pose in the presence of anybody linked historically to Africa, especially the Congo area. The slit drum was only really used in times of emergency and attack, so it is a symbol of warfare. The head at the end of the drum is meant to be a handle; it can be slid out and removed. The gape-mouthed pose is allied with confrontation – displaying the teeth as a means of intimidation – so this is in fact a very martial object.

This is a powerful and socially-significant piece of African art. - (PF.3671 (LSO))


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