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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Masterpieces of African Art : Kongo Ivory Figure of a Seated Man
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Kongo Ivory Figure of a Seated Man - LSO.582
Origin: Congo
Circa: 1850 AD to 1920 AD
Dimensions: 4.35" (11.0cm) high x 2" (5.1cm) wide
Collection: African
Style: Kongo
Medium: Ivory


Location: Great Britain
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Description
This attractive ivory sculpture was made by the Kongo (or Bakongo) people of 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 essentially 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 figure differs from the aforementioned in being a secular piece, insofar that it is unlikely to have been designed to cause harm or attract benefit through the religious paradigm of the Kongo peoples. It is also highly socially interesting, for it depicts perfectly the effects of European colonization. The figure represented is clearly indigenous, as can be seen from physical facial characteristics. He is also a person of importance, being sat upon a chief’s stool of ornate design, and wearing a highly decorated skullcap on the back of his head. Yet at the same time he is also a paragon of Christian virtue, as he is sat wearing a full tailcoat (a fashion in the 19th and early 20th centuries), and with his hands clasped in prayer. Pieces of this sort are both unusual and fascinating as they betray contemporary opinion about whatever was being depicted. The colonials are often portrayed as effete, obese or sluggish in appearance and action, which is perhaps understandable when one considers the imperial effect upon native groups. However it is a disarming fact that such a clever wit and technical eye can regard the aftermath of colonialism and produce such a charming piece of art. This is a wonderfully clever and attractive piece.

- (LSO.582)

 

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