A figure of a standing male, carved from wood, serves as the core of this power object or accumulative sculpture. The figure stands straight with his feet firmly planted on the ground, looking directly forward. His elongated and angular face terminates in a full beard that has a soft rounded edge. The wedge shape of the beard finds a resonance in the overall form of the head itself, and in the tiered line of hair that frames the forehead. A sagittal crest (mupani), one of the most distinctive elements of this work, rises directly forward out of the head. In profile, the ingenuity of the sculptor’s bold design is most evident—the straight line of the beard, into which are carved the ‘C’ shaped ears, merges into the dramatic crescent shape of the mupani which frames the face from an additional angle, culminating at a point in space directly in front of the forehead.
The surface of the face, excluding the triangular section of the forehead directly between the eyes, is filled with the delicate lines of striated cicatrization marks (mabina). These lines surround the minutely rendered facial features; the flat nose, the eyes angled slightly downward, the prominent mouth with lips that are individually carved. Oval-shaped flecks of ceramic or glass of a brilliant white have been placed in the eye sockets. This material forms an arresting contrast to the dark and textured surface of the wood, caked in all places with a substance that is likely an organic residue of libations that have been made to the figure over time. It is possible that this material is the residue of palm wine or kola nut mixed with saliva, materials recorded as being commonly used during the ritual activation of such figures. The natural reddish-brown color of the wood glows through these layers of additional surface encrustation.
The body of the figure itself has been subsequently encased during ceremonial activation with a thick carapace. This material, believed to have magico-medicinal properties, is known as bonga among the Teke Fumu, and bilongo among the Kongo peoples. A piece of cloth, made from either raffia palm fiber or imported cotton trade cloth, has been saturated with a resinous substance. This material has then been wrapped tightly around the form of the figure, beginning directly below the line of the beard and reaching to just above the feet. It is possible that layers of material were added to the figure over time, which would explain the inconsistencies and aberrations in the surface layer. The additive matter appears to bulge up around the neck, for instance, which suggests that this area might have been added separately. Radiographs reveal that a metallic tag, hexagonal in shape, has been positioned near the surface of the mid lower back. This tag has ‘F. 1918 M.C’ engraved on it and is likely a military tag transformed here into a secret power object.
The general outline of the figure remains evident beneath the additional wrapping. Indeed, it is perhaps by the concealment of the trunk that the viewer’s attention is drawn to the elements of the statue that are deemed to be of key importance—the head, and also the top section of a ceremonial sword that the figure holds in his right hand, which appears to purposefully break through the carapace. The seeming disparity between the jewel-like carving of the face and the chaotic mass that protrudes around the rest of the figure indicates that the meaning of the sculpture must be determined on two planes; by interpreting both the sculptural substructure and the later surface additions. These distinct elements combined determine how we look at this work, and how to interpret its meaning.
The quality of the carving clearly demonstrates that the wooden element of this work was created by a master sculptor. The style of the work suggests he had his workshop in the region to the north of Brazzaville in the Republic of the Congo. While the Teke peoples were the autochthonous inhabitants of this region, by the last quarter of the nineteenth century the peoples living here were a mixture of both Kongo and Teke populations (Martin, 1909: 19). The sagittal crest (mupani) and parallel cicatrization marks (mabina) are indicative of Teke Fumu or Teke Sisse leadership up until the early twentieth century (Hottot, 1956: 24). The raised ceremonial knife, however, is one of the essential symbols of a Kongo Bembe leader (Laman, 1953: I 18). Thus, the statue may perhaps be interpreted as representing a Teke chief holding a Bembe sword. Presenting the power symbols of different but closely related cultural groups in a single artwork has been characterized as symbolizing alliance or peaceful accord between the various groups in this region (Dupré, 1996: 184–185).
According to the French colonial administrator Kiener, who was present among the Kongo Sundi in Pangala, north of Brazzaville, in the Republic of Congo in 1911–1913—roughly the same time and place where this work was likely produced—a statuette might be customised depending on the culture of the buyer (Kiener, 1913: 22). Kiener’s notes provide us with the market value of such sculpted wooden figures. In the market in Pangala in 1911, it cost fifty centimes to one franc for the smallest figures standing up to 10 cm tall, one and a half to two francs for those of average size standing 15–30 cm tall, and two and a half to four francs for a figure standing 40–60 cm tall. The height of this example means that, in Pangala in 1911, it would have cost about two francs to purchase new in the market. This was not a very large sum—a square of raffia cloth was worth six francs on Congo Pool around this time, to give a sense of comparative value—and this amount would purchase a basket of cassava or a large fish (Maes, 1930: 394). The price of the empty wooden statuette itself, however, was only a small fraction of what the ngaa, the religious practitioner, would subsequently be paid to empower the work with bonga.
The male figure depicted here represents a powerful ancestor (inkwii). Master sculptors would have sold such small-scale works in the marketplace, fashioning larger scale works for the benefit of an entire community on commission. By empowering and activating a figure representing an ancestor through the addition of bonga, a link between the living and the dead is formed, ensuring the peaceful functioning of society. According to Kiener, if an ngaa visited a village to investigate the cause behind the death of someone who had died violently, he would bring a figure such as this to help seek out the reason for the death. The ceremony involving the empowerment of the figure through the placement of the bonga would last a few days, during which the ngaa would not only be paid in kind, such as in food and housing, but also for all the materials used in his process including any livestock, such as chickens and goats, that were sacrificed. On top of this, the ngaa would also receive no less than five pieces of cloth worth six francs each as direct payment for his work. Such a process was considered relatively inexpensive. At the other end of the scale, it would cost a minimum of 200 francs—up to 300 or 400—for an ngaa to empower a large-scale figure that would defend a whole community from diseases such as sleeping sickness or smallpox, which were prevalent at the time. This cost would be met by the chief of the village, who would then become the guardian of the much larger figure (Kiener, 1913: 22–24).
The writing of the French explorer Robert Hottot provides us with additional information about what this specific type of power object represented. He notes that they are called nkiba among the Teke Fumu and Teke Sisse (Hottot, 1956: 26). As Kiener made clear, Hottot also goes far to demonstrate that the wooden sculptural element of such a work is less valuable than the empowerment process. The ngaa “was paid in proportion to the power with which he endowed the fetish” (Hottot, 1956: 26). Hottot notes that in preparing the figure, the body is coated with sand or clay and then has cloth wrapped around it, containing the bonga within the figure. He also notes that each figure represents a known ancestor, whose guidance is called for by the owner though blowing and spitting on the work to activate it.
Edouard Ponel, a French officer who was a member of the French Mission La mission de l'Ouest Africain (1883–1885), was present in the region where this work was produced in the mid-1880s. He records that the use of such sculptures was common when Teke chiefs debated important matters, and their invocation was often linked with drinking rituals where kola and palm wine would be spat onto the figure. Ponel describes how, before the Teke chief spoke, “he takes an ebony fetish, places it between his knees and sprinkles it with palm wine.” Throughout the discussion, the chief continued to tap the figure and pour wine on it so as to encourage the ancestral force contained within to play a part in the decision-making process (Dupré, 1996: 136). Kola nut was not only used to help the flow of conversation but was also considered an offering to the dead. By spitting this material onto the figure, the ancestral force it contains or materialises is implored to play an active role in the conversation (Etsio, 1999: 87).
In another illuminating example, a Teke Tsaayi weaver of the 1950s was recorded as singing repetitive songs to invoke his ancestors to help guide his weaving (Masson-Detourbet, 1957: 73). Before beginning, he would position a figurative statue in wood under the lowest bar of the loom. This statue was a representation here of his own ancestor, “his father” literally—the man who taught him to weave—or “his father” in a more general sense—the ancestor who brought weaving into his family line. The ancestor was then implored to guide the weaver by its placement beneath the loom. The weaver was thus supported by this powerful ancestor who guided his work, and who he spoke to in the form of song and rhymes. Indeed, the Teke weaver, while completing a textile, may be understood as having been in a form of trance with the spiritual realm. In all of these examples, it is clear that such ancestral figures were invoked in order to gain the guidance of the ancestral realm when assistance was most urgently required.
The Sylvan C. Coleman and Pam Coleman Memorial Fund Fellow, 2017–2018
Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas
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