These figures – mangaaka – were created by master sculptors under ritual supervision. Bantu ethnic group. Speakers of Kicongo. Watershed of the River Congo. They were made of wood, resin, cowrie shell, animal hide and hair, ceramic, plant fiber and pigment. The figures lean slightly forward from their waists up and overpower the viewer.
For the people of the Congo basin and – surprisingly – for the foreigners among them, these figures represented the most influential defensive instrument created in the second half of the 19th century to deal with the continuous, violent incursion of foreigners into the Congo Basin.
These incursions were on the part of traders, colonizers and missionaries, businessmen. Mostly Europeans. Some Americans also. The prize was – and remains – the very rich resources of the lower Congo basin.
Mangaaka were designed to be very powerful protectors of their supplicants and brought on illness and ill luck to those who disturbed them. Every aspect of their manufacture and design and materials had meaning. These figures were deemed so efficacious that colonizers seized and removed them.
These figures are not in any of my native traditions and so do not speak to me directly. When I read this, however, I grew very anxious. And then angry.
That these Westerners removed these figures is not so surprising: their cruelties cost the lives – not just the minds – of millions of the inhabitants of the Congo basin. That they believed in the efficacy of these figures is interesting.
Some figures were desacralized before they were handed over to foreigners.
Less than 20 of these figures are extant today so thorough was their destruction.
The entire Congo basin continues in the greatest economic and political disorder.
Two changes: local political elites have joined in the pillage since the purported ‘decolonization’ of the countries of the Congo basin.
And the religious institutions of European pillagers are in accelerated decline. Nor are their political institutions able easily to handle the multi-century blowback of their pillages and the economic disequilibrium which remains. What comes around goes around.
These photos were taken at an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, New York, in the winter of 2015 and at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the early summer of 2016. The Philadelphia Museum was displaying a collection from the Museum of Pennsylvania University of desacralized mangakaa from the Kongo Kingdom, 18th or 19th century. Wood, glass, brass, nails, metal, iron.