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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Kongo, Yombe : African Art / Kongo Wooden Sculpture of a Kneeling Man
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African Art / Kongo Wooden Sculpture of a Kneeling Man - pf.8013 (LSO)
Origin: Democratic Republic of Congo
Circa: 19 th Century AD to 20 th Century AD

Collection: African Art
Medium: Wood

Location: United States
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This beautifully rendered and sensitive sculpture of a kneeling man was made in the Kongo Empire. It depicts a man on his right knee, balancing on his left foot, his right forearm resting on his side and his left forearm (now lost) extended. He is naked and unencumbered except for a raised-relief necklace, although he may originally have been carrying weapons in his hands. The rendering of musculature is astoundingly accurate and effectively done, from the small muscles of the arm to the trapezius and deltoid muscles of the back and shoulders. Even small details such as the penis, nipples, ears and umbilicus have been painstakingly carved. The face is extremely studied and serene, with wide-open eyes, a straight, broad nose and slightly parted, parallel lips. The brow protrudes above the eyes, and this – and indeed all the other elevated portions of the sculpture – is polished from use wear. The entire piece has a beautiful, varied patina as a result of considerable handling, usage and – perhaps – libations. The dark object on the head is a charge or “bilongo” – a bolus of magical substances (such as earth from an important person’s grave, mixed with blood/beer) that gave the figure magical powers.

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.

The astonishingly detailed “vocabulary” of Kongo gestures (bimpangula) extends to artworks, and it is often possible to understand the “mood” of the piece and the sentiment it was intended to convey to its original audience. Kneeling is usually a gesture of respect, often to ancestors. However, the hand-on-hip pose is known as “telama lwimbanganga” – literally, “standing against power” – involving one hand gesturing (often with a weapon) and the other on the hip in a highly aggressive pose, and one that still has resonance in modern Kongo and Kongo-derived groups. This pose is particularly associated with nkisi nkondi “nail fetishes”, which also display fearsome facial expressions designed to strike fear into the hearts of miscreants. This figure, by contrast, has a serene, beautifully-expressed set to his face that is strangely at odds with any sense of aggression or vengeance.

This magical piece is one of the finest Kongo pieces we have seen for some time, and is a worthy addition to any serious collection of African art. (Previously PF.8013DC) - (pf.8013 (LSO))


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