Ritual Messengers

The Peoples of Central Africa

| The Peoples of the Kongo | Kongo Masks | Maternity Statues | Chief's staffs | Nkisi nkondi Statues |

Ntandi (fumani) memorial statue. Kongo. Lower Zaïre region. Soapstone.
© Africa-Museum, Tervuren

  The Peoples of the Kongo

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 unity.

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.

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