Unknown African, ‘Kongo Wooden Nkisi Sculpture of a Rider’, 20th Century, Barakat Gallery
Unknown African, ‘Kongo Wooden Nkisi Sculpture of a Rider’, 20th Century, Barakat Gallery
Unknown African, ‘Kongo Wooden Nkisi Sculpture of a Rider’, 20th Century, Barakat Gallery
Unknown African, ‘Kongo Wooden Nkisi Sculpture of a Rider’, 20th Century, Barakat Gallery
Unknown African, ‘Kongo Wooden Nkisi Sculpture of a Rider’, 20th Century, Barakat Gallery

This unusual figure of a man mounted on what appears to be a pig is a magical device from the Kongo kingdom. The figure’s abdomen bears a magical protuberance that represents an addition often made from magical items – such as grave earth from the grave of an important person, blood and other organic material – that was affixed as a lump to the figure, thus endowing it with power. Sometimes substituted with magical materials such as glass or mirrors, the “bilongo” was the most significant part of these figures, which were appealed to for supernatural help in times of adversity. Some variants were perforated with nails or otherwise damaged in order to awake the wrath of the spirit to go forth and smite the object of the plaintiff’s complaints; the current piece, with its stylistic features, mirror, and lack of nails, is stylistically more akin to the Vili tribal style.

The figure is carved from a light wood, and depicts a man seated upon the back of a pig. His right hand is raised above his shoulder and is socketed, implying that it once held a weapon. The face is turned slightly upwards and bears an aggressive expression with open mouth and staring eyes. He is evidently of high status, with three bracelets on his right wrist, one armlet on his left bicep and an ornate feather headdress that has been applied to the figure using a textile band. He is otherwise naked, his body roughly in proportion although somewhat dwarfed by his head, with smoothing and blurring of anatomical details such as musculature. The midriff bears a box-like arrangement with a fragment of mirror, upon which he is resting his left hand. The animal upon which he sits is out of proportion to his stature – reminiscent of Yoruba equestrian figures – with a snub nose, short, thick legs and nugatory detailing. While unpainted, the entire piece has been polished to a dull shine, accentuated with the remnants of white pigment – perhaps kaolin – that have remained in the fissures between the limbs etc.

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.

According to the astonishingly detailed “vocabulary” of Kongo gestures (bimpangula), this figure is in a pose known as “telama lwimbanganga” – literally, “standing against power”. This pose denotes that the plaintiff’s enemies no longer have access to him/her, and that the figure is a wall or barrier between them and any further harm. The right hand usually held a sceptre of power or a weapon; the nkisi nkondi “nail fetishes” also display fearsome facial expressions designed to strike fear into the hearts of miscreants, and indeed the facial expression of the current individual is certainly one of aggression. Unlike the nkisi nkondi, however, his eyes are not inlaid with glass or mirrors. Nonetheless, he was undoubtedly believed to have possessed punitive powers, and was probably invoked in order to restore order to the village where he was displayed.

This is a striking, and possibly unique, piece of Kongo/Vili magical paraphernalia, and an outstanding piece of African art in its own right