Classifications, typologies, labels, and other organizational tools help us wade through complex cultural contexts and specificities. They may be a point of departure that suggests clarity, providing a veil of reassurance. Yet, if not subject to renewal in terms of temporal and spatial considerations, they can become static mechanisms that constrain and obscure the wealth of changing and seemingly anomalous factors that are essential features of dynamic cultural realities. As Gonseth et al. have stated, “the world cannot be defined solely in terms of classifications … it has to be looked at through, between, over, and above the expressions of our codes” (2013:19).
In the domain of art, the naming and labeling game (attribution, provenance, identification of object types) is a major concern, with very different issues preoccupying scholars and those in the private sector. Where the monetary value of art works remains the fundamental driver, perennial “stylistic” criteria of authenticity related to ethnic labels are repeatedly evoked and maintained to preserve easily recognizable market indicators.
In scholarly circles, Renée Bravmann definitely “opened the frontiers” in 1973 by showing “avenues of mobility” beyond the “frozen cultures” of William Fagg's 1960s “one tribe, one style” ethnic paradigm (Bravmann 1973: 9, 10; Fagg 1965: 11), yet the “single stories” approach, to which Gagliardi and Biro (2019: 1) have recently referred, in which an object is attributed to “a whole group of people or a geographical area,” is still currently used. Maxime de Formanoir (2019) has shown how the so-called Kota label, for example, applied in a 2017 major Paris exhibition to no fewer than 102 “reliquary figures”—aesthetically aligned simply on the basis of morphology and style—has obscuring their exact regional provenance and context of production and use.
My concern here goes beyond the preoccupation with style and ethnicity, two vast topics of debate (see Gagliardi et al. 2020: 16–21) which remain prime Western art historical and art market concerns, that are at times a little too intertwined. What interests me has to do with the reading of interethnic visual forms, their local performative and ritual use, interpretation and labeling. To exemplify this I will deal with a cultural feature of the Congo-Gabonese Atlantic coastal region, but essentially from the Congolese sector of Kwilu province of Congo-Brazzaville, where I undertook research in the 1990s. As I have not conducted research north of the Congolese border, this research note unpacks an unbiased and hopefully useful southern view of local specificities that characterize a part of a more extensive, variegated landscape of practices and beliefs.
My study of the literature and field research conducted in Congo-Brazzaville has led me to realize the extent to which intertwined, changing realities may be confusing to those unfamiliar with the terrain (Hersak 2001). In the absence of historical evidence and collection data about specific objects, as well as the anonymity (whether chosen or imposed) of carvers and users, selective readings appear as the only avenues of possible interpretation simply because they are easier to deal with. I have referred previously to the homogenization and simplistic interpretation of the vast Kongo-speaking complex, a sociocultural entity that stretches from southern Gabon to northern Angola (Hersak 2001). This “single stories” misrepresentation may be due in part to the difficulty of dealing with an overwhelming amount of documentation that exists on the region, dating from the sixteenth century onwards, but also to the sparsity of more recent field investigations.
In reading synchronic and diachronic cultural features of a region, identification of object types has been subject to constraining academic taxonomies. For example, having dispensed with the admittedly vague term “fetish” (at least in English), which had been applied since the contact period in the early literature to any manner of fabricated construct (see Pietz 1985: 5–11), the term “power object” was introduced by Anglophone scholars in the 1980s to designate an object empowered by the introduction of substances that “magically” animate it, bringing into play spirit forces for good and/or evil purposes. Such objects may be natural ones (shells, horns, pots, bottles, etc.) or anthropomorphic or zoomorphic sculptures. Whether called “power figures” or “fetishes” (as is still the case in the Francophone literature), these objects have been distinguished from ancestral figures and guardians of ancestral relics because their internal and secret empowering ingredients, composed of animal, vegetal, or mineral components, concocted by the diviner-healer (nganga), solicit a host of common spirits of the dead rather than those of the ancestors. But, as Allen Roberts has shown with the Tabwa people (1985: 14), and I with the Songye (both peoples in DRC), sociopolitical factors have contributed to shifting identities through time with magically endowed community pieces soliciting and acquiring ancestral power, status, and prestige (Hersak 2010: 40).
To make things even more confusing, the indigenous term nkisi continues to be used widely by academics for a material power figure in the Kongo-speaking region. But, in the northwestern Equatorial Atlantic sector of the Kongo world, the empowerment source is not defined locally in the same manner. The nkisi, repeatedly defined in the literature as a magical power object, belongs in this region to the domain of nature spirits, which are environmental and territorial entities (Hersak 2001:618-20).1 A magical object or figure is referred to as nkosi (pl. sinkosi/tsinkosi) not nkisi; and it is not empowered by familiar or ancestral spirits as among the Songye (DRC) but instead by enslaved human spirits that become agents of sorcery. It is this very difference in vernacular terminology that draws attention to a distinction that exemplifies the underlying complexity and changing reality of the label “power figure” or the Kikongo term nkisi. To art historians and other cognoscenti of African art, certain labels evoke visually distinct categories of historical objects but, as we can see, these are but schematizations that conceal historical changes and nonvisual factors relating to power and agency that are more significant to indigenous users.
In looking further at issues of object classifications, typologies, terminologies, and regional provenance attributions, I now turn to my field work in the Kwilu province of the Republic of Congo. I came to this region to retrieve data relating to the vast number of extraordinary examples of power objects such as those collected by German museum expeditions in the latter part of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth (Fig. 1). But I was armed with the previously mentioned misleading or obsolete vernacular terms and seeking information on material culture that had itself mutated and been redefined. Significant power objects were obviously no longer the well-known museum types of the past; rather, they were familiar and even mundane forms that I initially overlooked (e.g., tourist carvings from the local market, rubber dolls, and tin cans; Fig. 2). As one elder told me, it is of little importance where the object came from, who made it, or what it really looks like; its use and effectiveness are what matter. This explanation relates to the familiar story about borrowings, adaptations, and integrations of novel visual forms from elsewhere also emphasized by Open Frontiers (Bravmann 1973: 9–22).
There is an interesting case in point relevant to this discussion of power objects which has a more longstanding historical trajectory and whose significance I had not recognized at the outset of my field research. It is not a singular, freestanding, portable sculpture but a particular fixed village building type where varied sources of power may be concentrated, displayed, and performed, reflecting the movements of peoples and ideas. It is a dynamic, polyvalent space of encounter and potential innovation, adaptable to different religious beliefs and practices. This perspective broadens my discussion to a more meaningful contextual framing in which salient, individual elements (unlike sculptures perched on pedestals in museums) are inseparable from the entirety of the lived space.
My focus here is on an architectural structure, namely the men's meeting house or mwanza (pl. myanza)2 and especially its indispensable, defining feature, the central pillar—which has received attention far afield (Fig. 3). The mwanza is, in fact, a regional, multiethnic phenomenon and a conspicuous sight in the Kwilu region among Kongo peoples, namely the Vili of the coastal stretch, the Yombe in the rainforest to the east, the adjoining Eshira-related Lumbu to the northeast, and the mosaic of these populations clustered around forestry sites and main railway stations such as Les Sara in the Mayombe rain forest. But the mwanza features well beyond national frontiers into Gabon, DRC, and Angola. As Jan Vansina pointed out, the prevalence of mbanja village temples for men's associations spread far north into Gabon to the Ogowe Delta and beyond with the expansion of the Loango kingdom through trade that began around 1600 (1990: 158–59, 348). Those of the Tsogo and Fang in Gabon, which served the Bwiti (or Bwete) religious association, have undoubtedly received the most attention due to interest in the ritual proceedings of this movement and the elaboration of their sculptural elements (e.g., Raponda-Walker and Sillens 1962; Swiderski 1970; Fernandez 1982).
Among Vili, Yombe, and Lumbu peoples in the Kwilu these roof shelters, usually occupying a central position in the village, are fairly airy structures, generally supported by at least six to nine pillars, and sometimes enclosed halfway on three sides by planks or an arrangement of more widespread poles. While quite simple and modest, these shelters were of prime importance in the village. Invariably constructed by the founding chief, the first arrival to the village site, the mwanza represents the “family,” the matriline (dikanda) or the “house” as Vansina would say (1990: 153); hence, the potential presence of several such structures in a village displays the complexity of lineage alliances that have been drawn to a sharing of communal land. Apart from receiving visitors, the mwanza is, in principle, an exclusively male space where food is shared and palavers are held. But, in addition to feasting and judicial matters, it may also be a place of dance and healing with transformative ritual activity that nowadays draws in male and female participants.
In several villages, relief carving was present on the central pillar, at the front of the mwanza (Fig. 4).3 After subsequent research, I found that Father John Weeks published a photograph of such carving dating from about 1889 in the region of Boma, now DRC, which he referred to as “fetishes” on the “king post” (1914: 20). And, much later, a host of publications and illustrations focused on the carved pillars of village council houses of the Bwiti association mainly among Tsogo and Fang peoples (Millot 1961: 72–74; Raponda-Walker and Sillans 1962: 70, 71; Balandier 1966: 122; Swiderski 1970; Gollnhofer and Sillans 1978: 226, 228; Fernandez 1982: 396–97; and others). The representations in the Kwilu in the 1990s, though not always of extraordinary manufacture, often comprised snakes, crocodiles, male and female figures, and Punu- and Lumbu-style mukudj type masks (Fig. 5), some of which were simply attached to the pillar (Fig. 6). Their significance was initially dismissed as purely decorative by my respondents but, as my investigation continued, it transpired that this central pillar was not only of prime importance but also it embodied a particular power signaled to by these visual representations. Interestingly, some of these icons in relief that reference the same context of beliefs can also be seen on cement tombs in the region (Fig. 7). Alisa LaGamma noted, in her study of Punu mukudj masking in Gabon, that images of these masks placed at the entrance of homes appear deceptively decorative, but they are in fact protective devices. They create a “psychological barrier that inhibits ill-intentioned intruders,” both human and spirit. They may, however, also be “worked on” by a magical expert to enhance their power (1995: 118–19). That seems to be widely known in the region, though perhaps not to the foreign newcomer. Some people I spoke to—especially in villages close to or along main routes—confessed that the relief carving on their pillar was absent so as to evade suspicions about the potential power housed in their mwanza, yet the same importance and significance was attributed to the pillar.
The central pillar, or bumbuli, as it is called in the Kwilu, is said to be the stronghold of the mwanza and is associated to the power of the chief and his mystical auxiliary, the chinkoko/kinkoko/ikou,4 a so-called nocturnal animal housed in the pillar. The latter is referred to somewhat misleadingly as their “totem”5 and said to be the “wealth” and “heritage” of the family, maintained by the eldest in the matriline. The chinkoko is a mystical, hybrid creature that thrives on family blood and is created through what Hagenbucher-Sacripanti calls an “imaginary surgery,” or transmutation with the head of a human grafted on to the body of an animal (1973: 152; 1983:207). The importance of this auxiliary that provides its proprietor with extrahuman capacities has received particular attention from Hagenbucher-Sacripanti (1973:151-63; 1983) and was similarly an aspect of invisible powers that I was repeatedly told about. MacGaffey, writing about the BaKongo of Lower Congo and drawing on Karl Laman's information, does refer to an “animal familiar,” though without major elaboration (1986: 163). Laman, in his own publication, actually provides a lengthy description of a “magic animal” called a kinkonko among the Sundi Kongo peoples (1962: 37, 211). Among earlier unpublished sources, Father Christophe Marichelle, writing at the outset of the twentieth century, drew attention to what is certainly a chinkoko, which he referred to as a démon familier (1909: 27). He noted that it was an indispensable power source for the workings of a nganga (diviner-healer) and he further describes the initiatory procedure for the creation and affiliation with such an auxiliary (1909: 35).
It is said that the chinkoko is not an autonomous creature and can potentially be used aggressively and abusively but, if used justifiably, it is protective of its members. The chinkoko belongs clearly to the domain of sorcery, as defined in this western Atlantic Equatorial sector by Peter Geschière, for example, who emphasizes the ambiguity encapsulated by a singular expression for sorcery (1995: 20–21). Such perception, definition, and practice of sorcery finds parallels from Cameroon well into Gabonese and Congolese regions.6
The central pillar, the bumbuli, is therefore not just a fixed feature of an architectural ensemble. It is unquestionably a prime power object—and in particular a nkosi—the first to be erected upon the construction of a new mwanza and, like power figures and other bundles, bottles, etc., it is ritually activated during the impandi ceremony. Symbolically potent substances of animal and human matter (bisemo) are implanted at its base and liquidized with libations and sacrifices. This is “like the petrol in a car,” I was told. But it is also the moment when the chinkoko is drawn to the pillar, as this auxiliary needs “a bed”; it must be grounded in something material and subsequently “fed” with blood from the matriline to keep it active. As one Vili elder noted, “in the old days, the chinkoko was kept in an nkosi,” namely an anthropomorphic figurai carving (Fig. 8). I did encounter examples of figures placed at the foot of the bumbuli (Fig. 9),7 pillars composed of multiple figurai forms and also a large, single caryatide like the Tsogo examples referred to by Sallée (1985: 373) (Fig. 10). Many, though not all, of those that caught my attention and that I photographed were the conspicuous representations to be found in more secluded Lumbu villages and the “hors-champs” forestry sites that Mary (1997) refers to, and were reminiscent of Bwiti temples. Their proprietors maintained that these were the habitat of chinkoko, which the imagery clearly referenced, and denied any ancestral associations, for instance those relating to rebirth, visionary voyages, or fertility as in the Bwiti context (Swiderski 1970: 313, fig. 9). At its origins among the Apindji and Tsogo (Swiderski 1970: 301), Bwiti primarily sought the protection of ancestors whose relics were buried at the foot of the central pillar (Raponda-Walker and Sillans 1962: 198). But, during the course of its history and diffusion into multiple chapters, the ritual liturgy has integrated local variations and with them has turned to issues of sorcery that are now at the forefront of people's preoccupations (Bonhomme 2018: 155). As Bonhomme observed, the slightest, even nonvoluntary sidesteps to a ritual liturgy can lead to modifications that become ongoing features (2018:158-59). It would seem that the temples in the Kwilu that show visual borrowings from the Gabonese Bwiti have adapted in practice to local beliefs.
The similarity between nkosi power figures and the bumbuli is obvious. Drawing upon definitions of sorcery, they both deal with human conflict and resolution. The bumbuli solicits interaction between visible and invisible forces, but it is particularly its essential centrality within a defined space of confrontation that contributes to qualitative “architectonic integration” of varied aspects of village life, as Fernandez has discussed with reference to the Fang (1982: 125, 616, 617). Within the mwanza, and often extending into its outside frontal expanse, healing rituals may take place that nowadays bring into action all manner of spirits, those of the dead and those of nature. The liboka visionary dance is one such therapeutic/diagnostic ritual during which forces lock horns and the diviner's double leaves his body and departs on a dangerous mystical shamanic journey to rescue a victim whose own double has been enslaved by a sorcerer (ndoki) (Figs, 11a–b). As Father Marichelle confirmed at the beginning of the twentieth century, during the “boka” dance the diviner solicits the services of his chinkoko (1909: 27), his animal affiliate with which he identifies, thus demonstrating his superhuman strength in the face of similar opponents. The liboka, a term that derives from iboga, the shrub Tabernathe iboga Baillon whose hallucinogenic bark and roots are an essential component of initiations in the Bwiti cult in Gabon (Raponda-Walker and Sillens 1962: 46), is a word of power and effect imported by Lumbu practitioners into the Congo, where it was adapted to local practices.8 But the mwanza can also accommodate specialists, in many cases female, who manipulate the forces of nature (bakisi basi) for purposes of healing and wellbeing (Fig. 12). While possession by the bakisi and trance is their therapeutic practice, they are also now masters of their chinkoko, whom they resort to additionally to confront adversaries. As such the mwanza can be seen as an important multiplex space, as observed in Gabon (Mary 1997: 69, 70), where male and female practitioners perform both visionary and therapeutic cult activities, where sorcerers, their mystical auxiliaries, and also nature spirits are invoked. Some of these practices resonate with those beyond the northern Congolese border. In fact, many people I spoke to referred to “fetishes” and “dances,” namely cults and curing practices that originated in southern Gabon, like the women's mabanza dance said to be from Mayumba (Figs. 13–14). Yet the specificities of their discourses, the terms used, and related beliefs reflected more precisely local Congolese contexts and concerns.
Through time, space, and the mobility of objects and practitioners, ideas, words, and creative innovation have contributed to a kind of regional kaleidoscopic spread. Given “open frontiers” and this dynamism, ideologies have undergone revisions impacting on ongoing, novel reconstructions and local adaptations. Such fluid, living contexts inevitably bring into question terms, classifications, and typologies which need to take into account historical trajectories as well as changes, anomalies, hybridities, and other aspects that do not fit into neat categories. As the MEN team in Neuchâtel noted: “Behind certainties and well-ordered sets lie singularities, coincidences, mixtures, far from ideal-types but nonetheless typical of the greatest part of living beings” (Gonseth et al. 2013: 65).
This paper is the result of a shorter version written in 2014. The current one was completed in June 2020 and submitted for publication in December 2020. Many thanks are due to Pat Barylski and Christine Stevenson for their useful comments and for prodding me on. I am grateful to Jacky Maniacky, specialist of Bantu languages at the AfricaMuseum, Tervuren, for verifying some of the indigenous terms in this text, which I understand are difficult to decipher given that I am dealing with three related and intertwined language groups. I also appreciate the encouraging words of the anonymous reviewer, but I assume sole responsibility for all the flaws in this article.
I have explained elsewhere that, in the Kwilu region and during my period of research, the plural of nkisi and nkisi si is bakisi and bakisi basi, the prefix ba being proper to people whereas mi refers to things (Hersak 2001: 618–20). Some scholars—who conducted research in different areas and at different times—uphold that such a clear distinction does not exist in Kongo thought (e.g., McGaffey 1986:137-39)
There are slight differences in the use of this term in the Kwilu and in Gabon due to indigenous linguistic variations and different language conventions of the reporting researchers. For example, Vennetier, focusing on Vili, Yombe, and Lumbu regions, refers to moanza (1968:101); Rapponda-Walker and Sillans provide the Mitsogo version mwandja (1962: 197); Perrois cites ébandza for the Tsogo (1997:100), like Mary for the ebandza Fang (1997:72).
Jan Vansina, quoting the linguist Claire Grégoire, refers to the extensive distribution of this term, which designates “the communal buildings for men” in the languages of Cameroon, “a village temple” (mbanza) south of the Ogooué, and a “capital” further south and east (Kongo, Mboshi, Teke peoples) (1990: 338). Ekholm Friedman explains that the term mbanza, used by Weeks and Laman for a main village or capital, disappears gradually from the literature and is replaced by vata/gata/ngata in the Lower Congo (1991: 39).
While this was a novelty for me, because my research was focused on the Loango region and adjoining Mayombe rainforest where these carvings are not prevalent throughout, I might have taken a different perspective had I begun my documentary and field research in Gabon.
These terms correspond to Vili, Yombe, and Lumbu usage. The difference with the chi/ki prefix relates to the dialectical differences between Chivili and Kiyombe.
I should add that the “ch” sound (as it is inscribed in English), would be noted as “c” according to linguistic practice and “c” would be “k,” thus giving cinkoko (Jacky Maniacky, personal communication, March 4, 2021).
I have dispensed with the former (i.e., “c” for “ch”) as this, in particular, has caused confusion over the years since many scholars are not familiar with these linguistic conventions.
According to Hagenbucher-Sacripanti, the Vili and Lumbu also use the synonym butt (pi. mati) in the region of Sintoukola and in the forest zone between the Conkouati Lagoon and the Ngongo River. He further states that “the dance of buti” refers in that area to the initiatory society known in Gabon as bwiti (1983: 5).
The use of the term “totem” in French can be confusing as it usually designates the plant or animal emblem of the mvila or clan (Hagenbucher-Sacripanti 1992: 36).
While my research in the Kwilu confirms Geschiere's conceptualization of sorcery, it is a fluid, regionally varied notion, as he would also admit.
Among the Songye in DRC, where I conducted research, there exists a bipartite notion which is not a moralist opposition between good and evil, which he opposes, but a differentiation between different types of capacities. What is significant is that this is distinguished by radically different terms, namely buchi, an inherent mystical power, and masende, one that can be acquired by anyone. The existence and use of these words is proof of the reality of these phenomena for the Songye, at least in the postindependence period.
Interestingly, Sallée noted that among the Lumbu the Bwiti pillar is not carved but the “idol” is always there (1985: 373).
During my fieldwork in the 1990s people insisted that iboga was not a current practice during these diagnostic practices. Interestingly, Hagenbusher-Sacripanti claimed the same in his first 1973 publication.