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The Congolese people
Cultural Profile of their country- Democratic Republic of the Congo
Art in the DRC
Traditional Congolese art is particularly rich and varied, due to the country's many ethnic groups and regions. There's a wonderful mosaic which include paintings, sculptures, and other expressions particular to that specific group and/or region. Most of the works (sculptures and carvings specially) are classified according to the styles of the areas where they originated.
The southwest of the country, is known for the stone and nail-studded Nkisi statues of the Kongo people and the masks and figurines of the Yaka. The Kuba, in the south-central region, are known for Ndop which are statues created in the likeness of a king and that can serve as a symbolic representative in his absence. Luba art dominates the southeast region; it reflects the strong influence of women in their society with statuettes depicting motherhood. North of the Luba, the Lega produce masks and ivory figures. Zande and Mangbetu are part of the northern region. Zande art is characterized by cult statuettes, spear or bow shafts, and anthropomorphic pottery. Mangbetu art features figures with stylized elongated heads. Other folk traditions include making pottery, weaving raffia, and creating ceremonial dresses.
The most prolific art form by the Kongo are the Nkisi objects (plural Minkisi), which come in all shapes, mediums, and sizes. The stratification of their society resulted in art being geared toward those of high status, and the Nkisi figures were one of the only forms available to everyone.
Sacred medicine and divine protection are central to the religious belief of the Kongo people. They believe that the great god, Ne Kongo, brought the first sacred medicine (or Nkisi- loosely translated as a “spirit,” represented as a container for sacred substances activated by supernatural forces that can be summoned into the physical world) down from heaven, in an earthenware vessel set on top of three stones or termite mounds. These carved wood figures served as a receptacle for a force known as Mangaaka, invoked over the course of its use by the hardware added to its exterior by petitioners.
These sculptures embody a power figure, and most of them come with an intimidating and aggressive aesthetic depicting male subjects riven with hardware. These were intended to be experienced as part of a far broader spectrum of representations identified with power and leadership in Kongo society.
The nurturing and regenerative role of women is a visual metaphor to the definition of Kongo power, and just as important.
These minkisi can also sometimes be simple pottery containing medicinal herbs and other elements determined to be beneficial in curing physical illness or improving social problems. Other times, minkisi can also be represented as small bundles, shells, as well as carved wooden figures. Minkisi represent the ability to both ‘contain’ and ‘release’ spiritual forces, which can have both positive and negative consequences on the community.
A great example of a nkisi can be found in a power figure called nkisi nkondi, they are highly recognizable because they have inserted pegs, blades, nails, or other sharp objects into their surface. These figures can act as an oath taking object used to resolve disputes or lawsuits (mambu) as well as a guardian (nkondi means ‘hunter’) if sorcery or any form of evil has been committed. They are made with wood and represent either a human or an animal, such as a dog (nkisi kozo), carved under the divine authority and in consultation with an nganga (spiritual specialist who activates these figures through chants, prayers, and the preparation of sacred substances to cure physical, social or spiritual ailments).
Medicinal compounds called bilongo are stored inside the figure, sometimes in the head, but normally in the torso and belly area that is then shielded by a reflective surface (like a piece of glass, or a mirror). This surface represents the ‘other world’ inhabited by the spirits of the dead, who can see through and see potential enemies.
There's different elements with a variety of purposes in the bilongo, like seeds (to tell a spirit to replicate itself); mpemba (white soil deposits found near cemeteries), used to represent and solicit support from the spiritual realm; claws (to ask the spirits to grasp something); even stones (to have the spirits pelt enemies or protect a person from being pelted by them), etc.
The insertions are put into the figure by the nganga and represent the mambu. The type, or degree of severity, of an issue can determine the type of material used for it. For example, a peg may represent a matter being ‘settled’ and a nail, deeply inserted, might represent a serious offense, such as murder.
Opposing parties or clients often lick these blades or nails before inserting them, to seal the function or purpose of the nkisi through their saliva. If the oath is broken by one of the parties, or evil befalls one of them, the nkisi nkondi wiould then become active and would to carry out its mission of destruction or divine protection.
The information on this page came from Dr. Shawnya L. Harris and Dr. Peri Klemm, "Power Figure (Nkisi Nkondi), Kongo peoples," in Smarthistory. .