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Africa Direct

Kongo (BaKongo)

Location: SW Democratic Rep of Congo, Angola, Rep of Congo
Population: 2,000,000

Arts: The arts of the Kongo, and those of many of the peoples living near the mouth of the Congo River, though primarily thought of as a court art, are nonetheless dominated by imposing power figures produced for personal and group use, for a variety of purposes, from healing to protection, both real and imagined. There are parallels all over Africa, with the "bochio" of the Fon of Benin an obvious example. The best way to describe the use of these figures would be as "prayers." The power figures, which were about the only ritually significant art-form available to the average villager, were known as "nkisi" or "nkonde nkisi," depending on whether they had been empowered by the application of magical materials by a priest or diviner. These materials, from nails and blades to fabric pouches filled with magical substances, would be applied all over the outside of the figure, mostly from the neck down, covering the torso, but rarely the legs. There are also many figures which have either a circular or square cavity protruding from the navel area, covered by a mirror, behind which would be placed more magical substances. The mirror, as long as it was intact, was thought to deflect evil. It was through this application of materials that an "nkisi" would become an "nkonde," and assume its powers. The appearance and construction of these figures is similar among the Kongo and Yombe, and are difficult to tell apart. While most are carved in human form, there are some fantastic animal forms known in collections.

The Kongo are also well-known for carved funerary and maternity figures, often of great beauty and expressiveness. The maternity figures, known as "phemba," are among the most prized of all African sculptures. Consisting of a seated woman with crossed legs holding a child, they were carved to appease the grief of a mother who had lost a baby, and to insure that her next pregnancy would be a happier one. Again, both the Kongo and Yombe produce similar figures. The funerary statues are usually small, again carved in a cross-legged position, with the head resting upon the hand in a position of reflectiveness. These also can be of great beauty, and are associated almost exclusively with the Kongo.

While not as common as figures, the Kongo produce some wonderful masks, used in initiations. They often have the same wide-eyed, haunting appeal as the maternity and funerary statues. The best of these are, like the statuary, considered among the great masterpieces of African art. Like the figures, masks of the Kongo and Yombe are very similar, in both use and appearance. The Kongo produce an array of prestige items, in a variety of materials, from ivory to stone to metal, and these are also highly-prized by collectors. The art of the Kongo has assumed a special place in the hearts of serious collectors worldwide.

History: The history of the Kongo is an ancient and complex one, and can be traced back as early as the 13th century, arriving at their present location from the north. Their first documented leader was called "Wene." A location near the coast resulted in their early exposure to European explorers, primarily the Portuguese, late in the 15th century. In 1485, the Kongo actually sent a delegation to Portugal to commence diplomatic negotiations. The Kongo were early targets of Christian converters, and while some adopted the religion, large numbers did not. This of course created tension, and resulted in rival factions. The Kongo, well-organized and large in numbers, expelled the Portuguese in 1526, only to be invaded by the Jagas in 1568. The Kongo were thus forced to ask the Portuguese for assistance. Thus began the slow decline of the Kongo Empire. Though they fought both for and against the Portuguese in the years that followed, they were formally colonized in 1885. Independence from Portugal was finally attained in 1960, under the leadership of the Abako party.


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