Writing Art History Since 2002

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ART AFRICA, issue 07. Guest Edited by Kendell Geers.

Although scholars no longer share the Enlightenment view that Africans are childlike and capable of thinking only simple thoughts at best, some still offer explanations of Kongo remedial complexes (min’kisi, sing.n’kisi) that presume a tendency to naïve imitation on the part of the makers of such complexes.  In some respects therefore, we have not advanced beyond the view of Dutch traders on the West Atlantic coast of Africa in the eighteenth century who reported that when an African needed a deity to sponsor some enterprise, he would make a god of the first thing his eye happened to light upon, perhaps a bone, a piece of wood, a dog, or a lion’s tail. In fact, any actual n’kisiis clearly not an object picked at random but a complex assemblage of materials requiring time and deliberation to compose it. 

Modern reductions of min’kisito a single element, real or imagined, which then grounds an “explanation,” include the suggestion that the often carefully carved, metopic spot that appears in some Kongo sculptures, and in many more among the Tshokwe, is an imitation of Indian bindimarks which Africans could have seen on the foreheads of Indian passengers on Portuguese ships calling at Angolan ports on the way home from Goa. Putting aside the problem that women, not men, mark themselves in this way, and that there can have been few if any women on these ships, one is struck by the implicit image of the African artist as a naïve imitator, recalling Hegel’s judgment that life in Africa is nothing but “a succession of contingent happenings and surprises.” 

Another commentator, noting that an’kisisculpture shows signs that in the course of ritual use the operator (nganga) rubbed his finger on its forehead, and perhaps also on the shoulders, concluded that thengangawas trying to make the sign of the cross on the figure in imitation of missionaries. To save his hypothesis from the awkward fact that marks of rubbing are also evident on the lower back of the figure, he declared that these resulted from the later development of random rubbing. It would have been more appropriate in both of these instances to note that in the physiology of many Central Africans “the head” is systematically opposed to “the loins.” In Kongo thought the forehead (ndùnzi) is the seat of both intelligence and good fortune (ndúnzi), whereas the lower back is the seat of sexual energy. The shoulders are a mediating zone between the masculine head and the relatively feminine loins. 

One of the more plausible explanatory simplifications proposes that heavily nailed, usually anthropomorphicn’kisisculptures, called nkondiormbau, resulted from the nganga’snaïve effort to imitate crucifixes. It is true that nailed figures are found only north and south of the Congo River and west of Kinshasa, an area heavily influenced by Catholic Christianity since the end of the fifteenth century, but a number of facts count against the hypothesis. From an early date Kongo artisans were perfectly capable of producing realistic crucifixes, and nailed figures are first reported only in the nineteenth century, when the Catholic influence had long been in decline. At that time, in connection with commercial developments on the Loango coast, imported nails and other hardware were abundantly available. Away from the coast old knife blades are more common in nkondithan nails, and still further inland figures called nkondi may exhibit no hardware at all. What did nails and nailing mean to the Kongo?

“To drive in a nail” is koma nsonso in Kikongo, but koma, together with such verbs asbulaandbanda– meaning to strike or bang on something – also carries the metaphorical sense “to arouse, provoke.” On the Loango coast in the nineteenth century, a ngangawould drive a nail into a retributive nkondisuch as Mabyala Mandembe to provoke it into taking action against a wrongdoer – a thief or a witch, perhaps. But there were many other ways by which a n’kisi might be aroused: the nganga might bang on the ground next to it, explode gunpowder in front of it, or insult it, for example. 

Although the classical area of “fetish” included the whole Atlantic coast, my own knowledge is limited to the KiKongo language area, especially the Loango coast north of the Congo River. From this area came the greatest number of objects called min’kisi by their makers and users, “fetishes” by nineteenth century collectors, and African Art by modern critics, collectors, and museums. In the mid-nineteenth century a rising commercial class grown wealthy from illegal slaving and the associated trade in “legitimate” commodities destroyed the Loango monarchy. After 1870, such law and order as there was depended on major judicial min’kisi such as Mangaaka, Mavungu, Mabyaala, in the form of heavily nailed anthropomorphic figures and the procedures associated with them. So effective were these min’kisi in regulating trade that as the French and Portuguese took over the coast at the end of the century they made a point of confiscating them. Collectors deposited the most celebrated of them in museums of the primitive. To understand how and why min’kisiwere effective, we must look closely at them. 

A n’kisi was (and is) supposed to respond to appeals for help. That is its manifest function. Here is part of an actual invocation to an aggressive n’kisi, paraphrased from the KiKongo, dated 1915. 

Have you not heard, Mwene Mutinu, that something has gone missing here, it is a difficult matter, we have asked everybody in the village. They say they did not do it, that we should look for the culprit and punish him only. Therefore Mutinu, strike, destroy, do you not see the village? Slash and sweep. Afflict them with boils, with sores that never heal; spread skin diseases throughout the village, give them all headaches, twist their arms and legs, Lord Mutinu.

No doubt something nasty would happen to someone in the neighbourhood in the days after the performance, and everybody would think that the n’kisi had thus shown its power. In the eighteenth century, mistaking correlation for causation was seen as proof of a primitive mentality; in the twentieth century liberals excused the error by focusing on the named entity to which the appeal was made (in this instance, Mutinu) and referring to it as a “god.” N’kisi Mutinu, that is to say, was held to be an altar through which to address prayers to an absent deity. To make n’kisi a matter of religious belief may seem kindly but is in fact only a step removed from calling it a fetish. The error of mistaking correlation for causation occurs constantly, all over the world, not only in Africa, but error is not “religion.” 

“Mutinu,” or “Mabyaala,” or any other n’kisi, is the name of the material thing itself together with the procedures that activate it. As a material thing a n’kisi consisted of a focal object, whether a carved figure, a bag, an animal horn, a basket, or some other container for a named force in the form of multiple ingredients (bilongo, “medicines”), each of which earned its place in the composite because, by association or by analogy, it suggested one of the qualities attributed to the force. If we “translated” the list of materials into their meanings, they would constitute something like a poem, a multiplicity of signs and images assembled to evoke a situation and a goal. The activating procedures included highly charged incantations, gestures (such as nailing), music, and dance – an opera in miniature. The focal object was often accompanied by a cluster of other objects, including the nganga himself, an essential part of the whole; after his death, the n’kisi would have to be reactivated with a new nganga.

For the anthropologist Jean Bazin, writing about boli in Mali, which are comparable in many ways to n’kisi, a fetish is not the material embodiment of a spirit or deity, nor does it offer access to an agent beyond itself; it is a product of individuation, not re-presentation. To understand such god-objects we should think of a scale of singularity, from the unique to the commonplace. The fame of the singularity of a place, a person, or an object organises the space around it and attracts stories to cluster around it. This is a universal phenomenon, exemplified by historic battlefields, your grandfather’s gold watch, an anniversary, the Berlin Wall, or the exact place where a fatal road accident occurred. The most singular entities are divine. Bazin cites La Joconde (the Mona Lisa), themost fetishised work in European art. Itis a panel of poplar wood, of such and such dimensions, carrying a portrait of a young woman with an enigmatic smile, but an exact copy would still not be La Joconde, a singularity to which pilgrims flock by the thousand, drawn by the stories about it. More than a painting, La Joconde is a celebrity: the great Leonardo painted it; Francis I paid 4000 crowns for it; Napoleon had it put in his bedroom; an Italian workman stole it on 29 August 1911 at 8 am. intending to sell it; and so on. In fact, it was only in the aftermath of this theft and the publicity attached to it that the painting became “famous.” We value such stories because they tell us who we are; they map our world for us.

A n’kisi is singular as a unique and spectacular assemblage, provoking ngitukulu, “astonishment”: Look at that! What is that for? What’s inside? How did this come to be? What did the maker intend? How did he do that? These are the questions we ask about works of art. The “artist” would deliberately add items that were individually interesting to look at, including new things from abroad, such as mirrors, which also served the operator as aids to divination. A n’kisi was also, in part, a checklist of its own procedural requirements, including in its composition miniatures of the musical instruments prescribed for ritual performances, for example.

Participants in a n’kisi procedure already knew stories of its origin, the history of its relationship to its present operator, and tales of its effectiveness in clarification, healing, and punishing. It was said of the great n’kisi Na Kanga Vangu that it was “very large, very heavy, had killed many and healed many, and was therefore greatly respected.” Spectators would anticipate the drama of a performance and its consequences for individuals and the group. A n’kisi was thus extensive in social time, not just an object to be contemplated but an individual and collective experience. 

A n’kisi was also extensive in social space, because the procedures changed the social relations of the participants. The operator, for example, had to observe certain taboos, such as not eating certain things in company with other people; if he failed to observe the rules, the n’kisi ceased to be effective. The client also might be required to change his life over a period of time. If the n’kisi procedure succeeded in identifying and punishing a witch or thief, that target’s life might be radically changed. There was also an economic dimension. Clients in need of the services of the operator of a major n’kisi such as Mangaaka would have to pay him considerable sums, and the target of the procedure, identified for example as a “witch,” would be liable for fines. In short, the various rituals assured a constant flow of wealth upwards from the vulnerable to the more powerful and reinforced the subordination of slaves. By regulating people’s lives, reallocating resources, and redistributing power, a n’kisi could have subversive potential as a mass movement; though scholars described such movements as “religious” and “pre-political,” colonial authorities recognised their political potential. If a n’kisi failed to change people’s lives, if it did not “work,” it was thrown away.

A n’kisi procedure – the stories, the drama, the behavioural rules, the outcome – enabled people to come to terms with their life experience. An inventory of min’kisi in one neighbourhood (of which there might well be a hundred or more), was therefore a list of the people’s current hopes and concerns, for safety, good fortune, and health. As the historian Jan Vansina wrote long ago, “In Africa, social structures and religion are aspects of a single thing, a human community living the drama of its own existence.” 

The owner of a successful n’kisi could license it to others, training them in its procedures and providing copies of the original in exchange for substantial fees. Of Mangaaka, the most celebrated n’kisi in Loango, more than a dozen copies are known to exist. There is no way to know which of them, if any, is the “original,” but the multiplicity of copies testifies to its success. Though only fragments of their original totalities, the sculptures, as art, reflect the passions that originally produced them. Unlike the audience for which they were made, we do not know the stories of their magical origin, we have not witnessed the dramatic procedures in which they were mobilised, we have forgotten the names of all those whom they healed or punished. In their new role as African Art in prestigious museums they accumulate new stories of their provenance on the Loango coast, of the collectors, sellers and buyers who have owned them, and of the millions of dollars that they command in the market. Nowadays, in Kongo, dramatic min’kisi such as these are barely remembered, although many people still carry or keep in the house personal min’kisi for protection or good luck.

Wyatt MacGaffey, Professor of Anthropology emeritus at Haverford College, Pennsylvania, has written extensively on Kong social organisation, history, art, and political culture. In 1993 he was guest curator of the exhibition ‘Astonishment and Power’ at the National Museum of African Art, Washington, DC. His most recent Kongo publication is Kongo Political Culture (2000). 


Vansina, Jan. “Religions et Societies en Afrique Centrale.” Cahiers des Religions Africaines 2, 2 (1968) p.106.

Bazin, Jean. “Retour aux Choses-dieux.” In C. Malamoud and J.-P. V ernant, eds., Corps des Dieux. Paris, Gallimard, pp. 253-73.

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