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Powerful Forces

Political power and mystical spirit come together in many of the African works
July 18, 2017
Appears in April 2009
Detail of Male figure (nkishi). Songye, D.R.C. Wood, cloth, beads, iron bell, cord; h. 45 cm. Private collection. Photo: © Hughes Dubois, Paris/Brussels

Constantine Petridis Curator of African Art

Art and Power in the Central African Savanna comprises a selection of mainly figurative carvings in wood from the Songye, Luba, Luluwa, and Chokwe peoples in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo and adjacent Angola. The exhibition and its catalogue illuminate the political dimensions of works of art traditionally labeled as “power figures,” a term that typically refers to a figurative sculpture that contains magical or medicinal substances of plant, animal, human, or mineral origin. The exhibition and publication propose that some of the featured works usually viewed as political have spiritual associations and supernatural references as well, and thus may also be considered “power objects.” Accordingly, the majority of the works in the show refer simultaneously to religious beliefs and practices and worldly leadership.

Among the Songye people, the surfaces of power figures are altered and even partly concealed by beads, animal pelts, and skins. The Songye name by which these figures are known, nkishi (plural: mankishi), is one of many phonetic variations of a shared Bantu term that is used by a large number of related peoples throughout the region from the Atlantic coast to Lake Tanganyika to denote such works and the complex practices that go with them. Aside from its meaning as a container of any type (not limited to the shape of a human or animal figure), nkishi also refers to the spirit force for which the receptacle provided a temporary vehicle or home. On their way from Africa to the West many of the large Songye power figures lost their perishable accessories, such as animal pelts and reptile skins, which their first foreign collectors considered “infectious” materials. But these animal attributes, along with pieces of plant material, horns inserted in the skull, and strips of metal sheet or brass studs attached to the face, indicate the mystical powers embedded in the sculpture.

Male figure (possibly hamba wa mwanangana). Chokwe, Angola. Wood; h. 37.1 cm. Collection of Sidney and Bernice Clyman, U.S.A. Photo: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

In addition to their magical contents, the figures received sacrifices and offerings and were rubbed with oils and other substances. Their users were expected to follow certain rules and prohibitions. Rather than the carvers of the figurative support, specialists called banganga (singular: nganga) (a term in use throughout this vast region in Bantu-speaking Africa and translated variously as therapist, ritual expert, healer, or priest) were responsible for the transformation of the “empty” piece of wood into a powerful spirit-invested agent; the banganga were therefore identified as the actual makers of such complicated mankishi.

While most of the works on view in Art and Power are elaborate figurative carvings that are thought to exemplify the later forms of power objects in which the political and the religious merge, some of the objects belong to the broad category of protective or propitious devices usually labeled “amulets,” small portable objects to be worn or stored in the home. The exhibition also includes some remarkable nonfigurative and even nonsculptural power objects, which may represent their earliest stage of formal evolution. Few can be found in collections in the West, which are by definition selective and partial. Reflecting an arbitrary and subjective selection process, collections and publications have tended to focus on figurative and sculptural forms of art. Moreover, the secrecy surrounding many privately owned power objects has limited our knowledge of their cultural meanings.

Power object (bwanga). Possibly Luluwa, D.R.C. Horns, metal, warthog tusks, dirt; h. 20 cm. Felix Collection, Belgium. Photo: © Dick Beaulieux, Brussels

The Chokwe term hamba (plural: mahamba) has many different and overlapping meanings beyond its primary significance of a tutelary, ancestor, or nature spirit that mediates between God and man. Figurative carvings are one of many material forms mahamba can take. Some are the focus of collective worship, while others relate to private matters. Although many Chokwe scholars have categorically denied any relationship between the two concepts, in the exhibition catalogue I argue that “power object” should be added to the many possible meanings of hamba, and that the term constitutes the equivalent for the terms nkishi and bwanga used among the Luba, Songye, and Luluwa. (This reasoning was especially informed by the dissertation of the Portuguese anthropologist Mesquitela Lima for the Sorbonne in 1969.) 

Most Chokwe examples of so-called court art—images of chiefs and the culture hero Chibinda Ilunga—were imported to the West in the last quarter of the 19th century but were rarely accompanied by firsthand contextual information. The meanings and functions of these court-style figures have not been confirmed through modern fieldwork and remain largely speculative. In Art and Power I have interpreted Chokwe figures representing Chibinda Ilunga, chiefs, and their female counterparts as mahamba, and thus as power figures. In fact, in her 1982 monograph on Chokwe art, the Belgian art historian Marie-Louise Bastin also pointed out that some of these sculptures may have had a protective function, and that they were the focus of rites in which they were anointed with oils and chalk. Supernatural powers are also suggested by magically charged animal horns once inserted in the figures’ heads.

Amulet (nkishi). Luba, D.R.C. Wood, metal, beads; h. 11.8 cm. Felix Collection, Belgium. Photo: © Dick Beaulieux, Brussels

Like its real prototype, the hat proper to the title of “Lord of the Land” (mwanangana) sported by the Chokwe figure of a chief shown on page 4 may originally have been empowered with magical substances. Judging from a comparison with another figure from a private collection included in Art and Power, however, this sculpture most likely held a tall iron spear rather than a charged horn in the container carved on its head. These features, combined with the obvious traces of oil and other ointments on the works’ surfaces, seem to indicate that at least some chief figures pertained to a cult and probably served protective and curative purposes. Perhaps such Chokwe figures, aimed at safeguarding the authority and well-being of the chief and his people, were once preserved within the fenced enclosure called cipanga, surrounding a shrine where the chief’s magical objects were kept. A spear stuck in a chief figure’s head could suggest its transformation into a man-made version of the axis mundi which was usually represented by the mukumbi tree (Lannea welwitschii). Planted within the cipanga enclosure, this tree served as the abode of the mahamba ancestral spirits that protected the community.

The literature on power objects among the Songye, Luba, Luluwa, and Chokwe peoples reveals features of a shared culture. Among all four peoples some of the most frequently published and exhibited works, characterized by elaboration, large scale, and greatly refined and accurate anatomical and decorative detail, share religious and political dimensions. However, the production of such hybrid sculpture types was short lived and came to an end with the imposition of the colonial regime in the first decades of the 20th century, when the authority of the newly established centralized systems was curtailed by foreign powers. While these new elite forms of power figures waned, earlier forms, including nonfigurative and nonsculptural objects, did not disappear and in some places have survived to this day.

Cleveland Art, April 2009