Ntandi (fumani) memorial statue. Kongo. Lower
Zaïre region. Soapstone.
© Africa-Museum, Tervuren
The Kongo and other culturally
related ethnic groups the Yombe, Woyo,
Vili, Solongo and Sundi inhabit the Lower Zaïre area between the
Atlantic coast and Malebo Pool. This region, which once constituted the
historic kingdom of Kongo, is at present part of Angola (with the Cabinda
enclave), the Congo and Zaïre.
The ancient kingdom of Kongo, with Mbanza Kongo as its capital, was probably
founded at the end of the fourteenth century. When the Portuguese reached
the Zaïre estuary in 1482-1483, the country was a prospering political
and economic centre. The king was at the head of a complex system of
government, composed of a number of districts and provinces. The districts
were governed directly by the king and his next of kin, while the provinces
remained under the authority of the long-established aristocracy. In time,
some independent kingdoms were founded in the area; sixteenth-century
sources mention not only the kingdom of Kongo but also those of Loango,
Ngoyo and Vungu.
The territorial supremacy of the Kongo rulers gradually declined as a result
of political intrigues, disputes related to succession, invasions and the
slave-trade. By about 1710 the Kongo kingdom had disintegrated into small
chieftainships. From the eighteenth century and through the nineteenth
century a complete political about-face took place. The idea of a kingdom as
a political institution become a myth; all that remained was a cultural
The European presence in the region, from the fifteenth century onwards, led
to the conversion of the Kongo court and the establishment of catholicism as
the state religion. However, traditional rituals and religious institutions
were not entirely supplanted; rather, Western elements were selectively
integrated into existing traditions. During the colonial period, concerted
efforts by missionaries and authorities led to the suppression but not to
the disuse of minkisi (figurines and objects invested with special powers).
The Kongo continue, unobtrusively, to resort to them. Their spectacular
rituals and dramatic enactments, however, are events of the past.
Within African art, Kongo art is known for its realism, characterized by a
lifelike rendering of the human face. Western elements have been integrated
into some statues. This European influence was most apparent in the region
from 1860 onwards.