Beauty, Ugliness, and Power in African Art at the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth

by Ruben Cordova August 12, 2022

The Language of Beauty in African Art is a sprawling exhibition predicated on a radical proposition (for major Western museums): evaluating African sculptures from the perspective of the cultures that produced them, rather than from the viewpoint of the European cultures (and their successors) that looted and/or collected the works. This exhibition is fundamentally concerned with how these sculptures were valued and considered efficacious because of their beauty, ugliness, appropriateness, and/or power. The exhibition was on view at the Kimbell in Fort Worth through July 31, 2022. 

In many sub-Saharan African cultures, words for beauty also signify goodness, thus endowing aesthetics with moral value. Sometimes the beautiful is a golden mean that extends to human behavior. In a Language of Beauty in African Art catalog essay titled “Beauty and Ugliness in African Art and Thought,” Wilfried van Damme notes that when Baule villagers assess anthropomorphic sculptures, they say: 

Necks should be neither too long (“like a camel”), nor too short (“like a cricket”); buttocks should be neither too flat (“like a frog”), nor too developed (“like a northern woman”), and so on. … The principle of the golden mean also seems to serve as an ethical or social ideal among the Baule.

Aesthetics, in short, often coincides with ethics. The beautiful is the good. It pleases the spirits. To the living, beauty is always exemplary. And, as we shall see, even frightening and/or ugly sculptures have important social functions. 

The exhibition’s large and beautifully illustrated catalog is published by the Art Institute of Chicago and distributed by the Yale University Press. The Art Institute, which is the organizer of the exhibition, possesses one of the largest and best collections of African material in the U.S. The catalog features essays by seven scholars on various aspects of African aesthetics. It does not have individual catalog entries (which would require another big book). The exhibition checklist contains provenance information on each work, except in rare instances when it is not known.

Thirteen U.S. museums and three European museums (from Antwerp, Geneva, and Zurich) are lenders to The Language of Beauty in African Art. Several leading museums with the largest and most remarkable African collections are not lenders: the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the U.S., and, in Europe, the British Museum, the Musée du Quai de Branly (successor to the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro and the Musée de l’Homme) in Paris, the Ethnological Museum in Berlin, and the National Museum of Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium. The afore-mentioned European museums are leading repositories of colonial booty from Africa, and have been at the center of restitution controversies. To be clear, I am not implying that controversies account for the non-participation of these museums in the exhibition, though calls for restitution from African nations will no doubt make exhibitions of this scope harder to mount in the near future. 

I inquired about the non-participation of these five museums, and I received this reply from Costa Petridis, chair and curator of the Arts of Africa, The Art Institute of Chicago, who curated the exhibition: “I wanted to give priority to lesser known museum collections with excellent holdings that are much less visible and accessible and more rarely included in exhibitions.” While the quality of works in the exhibition is high, the show would have been even better with loans of choice works from the museums mentioned above, as well as from some small museums with stellar collections, such as the Musée Dapper in Paris. 

Petridis has cast his net wide, with a total of 288 works listed in the catalog. Many pieces are from private collections. Thirty-six private collectors from Europe and the U.S. are lenders to the Kimbell iteration of The Language of Beauty in African Art (the show will be even larger in Chicago). Two private lenders are from Texas, in addition to the Kimbell Museum of Art, the Menil Collection, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Dallas Museum of Art (the latter has one of the top five collections of African art in the U.S.). Several works from Texas collections are discussed in this review.  

This review focuses on two classes of objects: Kota reliquary figures at the beginning of the review, and Kongo Power Figures at the conclusion. The impressive ensemble of the latter is the highlight of the exhibition. In between these two groups, I discuss an assortment of sculptures, and how they were utilized and regarded by the cultures that produced them. 

Kota Reliquary figures

Small bronze African sculpture

Installation view of “The Language of Beauty in African Art.” Photo: Robert LaPrelle, Kimbell Art Museum. From left to right: Reliquary Guardian Figure (Mbulu Ngulu), late 19th – early 20th century, Kota: Obamba, Gabon, wood, copper, brass, and iron, The Art Institute of Chicago, Charles H. and Mary F. Worcester Collection Fund, 2007.212; Reliquary Guardian Figure (Mbulu Ngulu), late 19th – early 20th century, Kota: Obamba, Gabon, wood, copper, brass, and iron, The Art Institute of Chicago, Charles H. and Mary F. Worcester Collection Fund, 2007.212; Attributed to Semangoy of Zokolunga, Janus Reliquary Guardian Figure (Mbulu Ngulu), late 19th or early 20th century, Kota: Obamba; Gabon, brass, copper, iron, wood, and fiber, Dallas Museum of Art, The Eugene and Margaret McDermott Art Fund, Inc., 2005.36McD.

Sculptural elements from Kota reliquary ensembles from present-day Gabon and the Republic of the Congo were among the first African sculptures to be taken to Europe in the nineteenth century. For an illustration of the different types of Kota reliquary figures and the geographic locations in which they were made, see Tribal Art Magazine Special Issue #5: Kota New Light (henceforth TAMK), 2015, p. 29. 

They began arriving in the 1870s. (The three in the Kimbell exhibition are pictured above; a total of eight are illustrated in the catalog, so a greater number will be exhibited in Chicago, the exhibition’s other venue.) International expositions in Paris in 1878, 1889, and 1900 (geared to increase support for imperial expansion in Africa) featured objects from Central Africa. 

Kota reliquary figures were also among the first African sculptures to be deeply appreciated, collected, and emulated by European artists in the early twentieth century. These sculptures were always severed from their ritual context and their forms were misinterpreted. In the Heliogravure below, they are part of an array of curiosities or trophies.  

Detail of an back and white image of african art

Installation view of Gabonese artifacts collected by Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza and donated to the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro, Heliogravure published in Le Tour du monde, 1888. The caption read: “Drums, masks, etc., of the Ondoumbos—After an assortment exhibited at the Trocadéro.” Photo: Alisa LaGamma, ed., Eternal Ancestors: The Art of the Central African Reliquary, 2007, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In the above illustration, the central Kota reliquary figure seems to be dancing on the large drum, presumably accompanied musically — or awakened by — the rattles in the foreground. 

Engraving of three african men in traditional cloth

Field engraving by Edouard Riou (cropped on the right), based on a drawing by Jacques de Brazza (brother of Pierre), published in article edited by Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza and Edouard Charton in Le Tour du monde, 1887. Photo: Ross archive of African Images. The original caption read: “Invocation of the fetishes.”

These brass and copper-sheathed wood sculptures were made to protrude from baskets that were woven from plant fibers or fashioned from (or adorned with) strips of hide (in Riou’s print, the rightmost basket is adorned with a full-length fringe of hide). Other, smaller guardian figures also stood atop or inside of cylinders fashioned from bark. 

Both types of reliquaries contained the prized bones of notable ancestors. The ancestor cult for which these objects were made is generally referred to as bwiti or bwete. Because the soil was so bad in the regions these objects were made, the groups who lived there had to move every few years. Bones were thought to carry the powers of ancestors. Relic bundles enabled this great power to be made portable.

These sculptures were guardian figures that protected the valuable relics. Four guardian figures can be seen in the left background of Riou’s print. (They are too large in proportion to the men in the foreground, but they convey the context in which these artifacts were maintained.) 

One theory holds that these guardian figures served as idealized ancestors, perhaps founders of lineages. In an important article in TAMK entitled “New Light on the Kota,” Frederic Cloth argues that reliquary guardian figures represent individual local spirits, each of which “plunges its ‘arms’ into the basket of ancestral relics in a gesture that can easily be interpreted as a protective one.” 

In any case, these reliquaries — in conjunction with the sacred bundles they inhabited — were ritually consulted. 

The text in the Tour du monde article that featured Riou’s print read in part:

the fetishes will be consulted and leave will be taken. The chief takes the rattle used [to] wake the spirits and seeks guidance from the skulls of his ancestors. Their reply, solicited by the offer of a basket of bananas, is entirely favorable. The young men then cut a few clumps of their hair, a nail from each foot and hand, and bow down before their father. He gravely gathers locks and clippings, gathers them into a packet and places it ceremoniously in the hut of idols

In Riou’s print, the older man on the right is presumably making an offering of a packet that contains clippings from his sons. The dead fowl in the foreground must have served as a sacrifice — its blood would have been sprinkled on the reliquary figure and relics. 

Black and white engraving of two african sculptures

Drawing by Alfred Pâris, titled “Fetishes from Pongo,” published by de Brazza in “Le Tour du monde,” 1888. Photo: Eternal Ancestors catalog, 2007.

Another drawing in a Le Tour du monde article shows three Kota reliquaries in baskets on a table within a sanctuary. Only adult males who had been initiated into the cult could view these artifacts. The cylinders in the foreground are smaller reliquaries made of tree bark (photographs illustrating reliquaries of this type are discussed below in connection with Kota and Fang reliquary guardians). The rattle in the left foreground is presumably the one utilized to “awaken the spirits.”  

Photo of a man working on sculptures

Postcard with photograph attributed to Monsignor Augouard of a Sangu nganga (healer), early 20th century, postcard 3 7/16 x 5 ½ inches, Holly W. Ross Postcard Collection. The caption reads: “Les derniers restes du fétishisme” (The last vestiges of fetishism). Photograph: Eternal Ancestors catalog, 2007.
This photograph (with a white shirt painted on the healer) was utilized in a 1912 book that featured the following text: “Below this box, they often set a rough and hideous statue, sculpted by great ax blows on a uniform trunk of black wood. This, in truth, is Biéri, the national god, the universally dreaded fetish of the non-initiated, the statue, representation of the invisible god of evil, he who must be appeased from time to time, especially during periods when the moon is full, by offering victims for sacrifice in a remote corner of the dark forest.” See Ross Archive of African Images for the photograph with the painted shirt.

In the above postcard image, a healer poses with three Kota reliquary ensembles (the two on the left feature large, wide strips of hide; a large basket is visible in the middle example; the basket on the right does not have a hide fringe). The leftmost bundle seems to have been undone (the basket, if present, must be small). Behind the three reliquary figures, one can see three large cylindrical reliquaries made of bark (and an additional small one on the left). The skull in the center of the photograph could have come from the undone bundle on the left, or from the open box on the right.

Smoking was an important part of ritual divination and healing, and, as we have seen, rattles were utilized to activate the spirit of the reliquary. So the combination of reliquary figures, rattles, and pipes in the Trocadéro Heliogravure reproduced near the top of this review is perhaps not as random as might be assumed. 

A photograph by Dr. Stephen Chauvet, c. 1930 (from the book La médecine chez les peuples primitifs, Paris, 1939; reproduced in TAMK, p. 15), shows one man holding a Kota reliquary while another man removes relics from a basket (which features a hide fringe at the top). These relics include four complete skulls (two of which have holes in the top that could have served as a base for the reliquary guardian figure).  

The reliquary figures, as well as the relics themselves, could be removed from the relic bundles for ceremonies and rituals.

For the Kota, skulls were the most important ancestral relics, a fact that is reflected in the forms of the guardian figures themselves. They are essentially large heads with stylized armatures that serve to project the heads out of the reliquary bundles. These lozenge-like armatures are not abstracted depictions of the entire body, as twentieth-century artists and collectors tended to assume. They instead represent shoulders and arms. Half-figures carved out of wood also feature depictions of figures with arms in a lozenge shape. See Cloth’s drawing that relates a Kota reliquary to six wood sculpture types (TAMK, p. 30). For photographs of two wood sculptures from DR Congo or Gabon that relate to Kota reliquary guardian figures, see TAMK, p. 66. 

As we have seen, the reliquary statues are not simply guardians of the relics. As a part of reliquary ensembles, they played an important part in rituals, especially those that involved ancestry. As Joshua I. Cohen notes in the discussion of a Kota reliquary figure on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website, these ensembles offered many kinds of assistance:

Such rites and performances are known for remedying social crises and for ensuring success in matters ranging from fertility and health to hunting and trading. Reliquary ensembles also played an essential role in initiation rituals that pertained to the transfer of family history and genealogy. Typically housed in the residence of a family or clan leader, reliquary ensembles broadly offered assistance and protection in shielding their communities from harm, following a belief in the responsiveness of venerated ancestors to appeals from their descendants invoked through sacrifices, medicines, and prayers.

Photo of an african sculpture

Reliquary Guardian and Bundle, Kota: Obamba, Gabon, before 1897, wood, copper, brass, iron, plant fibers, rattan, animal hide, human bones, feathers, 600 cm high, Musée du Quai de Branly, France. Photograph: Google Arts & Culture. Not in the exhibition.

Over 2000 Kota reliquary figures have survived, but very few have been preserved inside their relic bundles. The example illustrated above features a complete basket that has an encircling leather fringe like one of the examples in the Riou print illustrated above. It provides a sense of what these objects looked like in their cultural context. 

Detail of the top of an african sculpture showing the face of a figure

Reliquary Guardian and Bundle, Kota: Obamba, Gabon, before 1897 (detail). Photograph: Google Arts & Culture. Not in the exhibition.

This reliquary figure also has a feather adornment. Large amounts of iron are utilized in the head and neck, making a sharp contrast with the more golden-hued brass and copper elements.

Photo of two people holding reliquary figures

Two men holding reliquary figures and ceremonial weapons, 1917. Photograph by rev. G. A. Jacobsson, Svenska Missionskyrkans Arkiv, Stockholm. Photograph: Sotheby’s. (Compare the large spearheads to the ones in the Riou print.)

Cloth argues that the above photograph, along with another one of the same two men (with different clothes) with two small anvils and a third reliquary figure (illustrated in TAMK, p. 42) show the men in the act of surrendering their prized objects to missionaries as proof of conversion. Two of the guardian figures in these two pictures entered a Swedish missionary museum, from which they passed into the National Museum of Ethnography. 

Bronze sculpture

Reliquary Guardian Figure (Mbulu Ngulu) late 19th – early 20th century, Kota: Obamba, Gabon, wood, copper, brass, and iron, The Art Institute of Chicago, Charles H. and Mary F. Worcester Collection Fund, 2007.212. Photograph: Ruben C. Cordova.

The brass and copper utilized to adorn the wood cores of the guardian figures could only be obtained through trade, so the materials were rare and precious. The metal’s reflective surface evoked sunlight on rivers or the ocean. Since the realm of the supernatural was thought to exist below or beyond these bodies of water, the inherent properties of the metals were themselves associated with the supernatural. The metal surfaces of these figures were continuously burnished to perpetuate their symbolically valuable reflective qualities. 

Detail of a bronze sculpture

Reliquary Guardian Figure (Mbulu Ngulu) late 19th – early 20th century (detail). Photograph: Ruben C. Cordova.

Alloys with different quantities of copper were utilized to create individual facial features and patterns. For a short video that includes an analysis of the fabrication of a Kota reliquary, see the Smarthistory video narrated by Kathryn Wysocki Gunsch and Steven Zucker. 

The metal that was obtained to fashion these figures usually came in the form of European plates. In one drawing, Cloth shows how all the pieces of metal necessary for a small figure could be made from a single plate; in another drawing, he shows how a larger work was fabricated, including every nail (TAMK, p. 31, 35). 

One can easily read the central elements of Kota reliquary figures, such as the one pictured above. It has eyes and a nose (some examples also have mouths). But how does one interpret the crescent moon-shaped form at the top, and the flaps on the sides, with the little forms that dangle down like earrings (or that extend like little arms in other figures)? 

Cloth made a diagram that maps the flattening out of a three-dimensional wood sculpture into the stylized form of a Kota reliquary (TAMK, p. 65). The crescent moon shape derives from a feather crest (seen sideways) that ran down the center of the wooden sculpture’s head. It was doubled and merged into a single form. The flaps on the side represent the sides of the face. The small elements at the bottom of the flaps on either side represent ears. 

Photo of a small African sculpture

Attributed to Semangoy of Zokolunga, Janus Reliquary Guardian Figure (Mbulu Ngulu) (front view), late 19th or early 20th century, Kota: Obamba; Gabon, brass, copper, iron, wood, and fiber, Dallas Museum of Art, The Eugene and Margaret McDermott Art Fund, Inc., 2005.36McD. Photograph: Dallas Museum of Art.

This is a rare reliquary figure that is known as a Janus figure because it has a face on each side. Only about 50 Kota reliquaries are janiform (with a face on each side). This work in the Dallas Museum of Art is also one of the works for which specific makers have been posited. 

Rear view of small african sculpture

Attributed to Semangoy of Zokolunga, Janus Reliquary Guardian Figure (Mbulu Ngulu) (rear view), late 19th or early 20th century, Kota: Obamba; Gabon, brass, copper, iron, wood, and fiber, The Dallas Museum of Art, The Eugene and Margaret McDermott Art Fund, Inc., 2005.36McD. Photograph: Dallas Art Museum.

There is still uncertainty about what the two faces stand for. It is often posited that they stand for male and female, with the convex face as male and the concave face as female. Some think the two faces could symbolize future and past, or the living and the dead. 

Cloth emphasizes that the only surviving account from the Kota, which was given to the Swedish missionary Efraïm Anderson, makes the male / female identification. Anderson also noted that the janiform reliquaries could eat goat and chicken at the same time and were thus “more powerful.” 

The Teke (who are neighbors to the Kota in several regions) have some spirits that are both male and female, and are addressed by separately gendered cults. Cloth notes that the janiform reliquary figures mostly appear in regions in close proximity to the Teke. He posits that the janiform figures are “of a single spirit with two possible faces” that receive offerings of goat and chicken from separate cults. Cloth takes this duality as more evidence that the reliquaries represent spirits rather than ancestral figures. 

Side view of african sculpture

Attributed to Semangoy of Zokolunga, Janus Reliquary Guardian Figure (Mbulu Ngulu) (side view), late 19th or early 20th century, Kota: Obamba; Gabon, brass, copper, iron, wood, and fiber, Dallas Museum of Art, The Eugene and Margaret McDermott Art Fund, Inc., 2005.36McD. Photograph: Dallas Art Museum.

The side view shows just how thin these reliquaries are. 

Image of a bronze african sculpture

Reliquary Guardian Figure (Mbulu Ngulu), late 19th – early 20th century, Kota: Obamba, Gabon, wood, copper, brass, and iron, The Art Institute of Chicago, Charles H. and Mary F. Worcester Collection Fund, 2007.212. Photograph: Art Institute of Chicago.

This unusual guardian figure has a nose whose bridge continues all the way to the top of its pointy-head. On the reverse, it has a beveled edge that continues from its neck to the tip of its head. 

Photo of Mahongwe reliquaries at the French military post of Kemboma Matote, Liboumba River

Cache of Mahongwe reliquaries at the French military post of Kemboma Matote, Liboumba River, Ogooué-Ivindo, Gabon, c. 1929-1931. Photograph: Eternal Ancestors catalogue, 2007.

Colonial depredation, occupation, and the imposition of Christianity brought an end to the traditional religious practices of the Kota. The production of Kota reliquary ensembles ceased around the time the above photograph was taken. Untold numbers of these artifacts were abandoned under duress or destroyed, except for those that were carted off to other parts of the world. 

Detail of an abstract Picasso drawing

Pablo Picasso (1881 – 1973), “Femme nue aux bras levés” (Nude Woman with Raised Arms), 1907, oil on canvas,
150 × 100 cm, Basil and Elise Goulandris Foundation, Athens. Photograph: Goulandris Foundation.

Now I will consider one example of how a European artist utilized forms from Kota reliquaries. Like many members of the European avant-garde in the early twentieth century, Picasso admired and collected African sculptures. He owned at least two Kota reliquary guardian figures, and they are presumed to have been among his earliest acquisitions of African tribal objects. 

Picasso painted Nude Woman with Raised Arms soon after his landmark painting Le Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). It contains reminiscences of that great painting and the studies that preceded it. 

By the 1930s, scholars such as Robert Goldwater and Alfred Barr recognized a connection between Nude Woman with Raised Arms and Kota reliquary figures. Barr, who created the modernist canon as the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art, wrote in Picasso: Forty Years of his Art (1939) that Nude Woman with Raised Arms was more influenced by African sculpture than the figures in the Demoiselles. In the book, Barr called Nude Woman with Raised Arms “the masterpiece of a brief barbaric phase of the Negro period.” It is generally recognized that the upper legs of Nude Woman with Raised Arms are a reminiscence of the upper portion of the diamond-shaped base of Kota reliquary sculptures.

One might make some other connections, including the Picasso painting’s oversized head, its undersized body (like the neck of the Kota figures), the hatching marks that resemble those found on some Kota figures, and the area above the eyebrows in the head (some Kota figures have a separate area above the eyebrows). That area above the eyebrows in the Picasso painting is a little reminiscent of the crescent moon-like shape at the top of many Kota reliquary figures. The upraised arms of the figure in Picasso’s painting echo the flaps on the side of many Kota reliquary heads. The arm on the right side of the painting even seems to be congealing into a flap-like element adjacent to the head. 

Picasso was a great synthesizer of forms from cultures that were not part of the Western canon of high art, and many of these influences are evident in this period of his work. These various non-canonical forms were referred to generally as “primitif.” I argued in my dissertation (“Primitivism and Picasso’s Early Cubism,” 1998) that the twisted lower legs of Picasso’s figure were influenced by El Greco, especially his Vision of Saint John (c. 1608-14). Picasso had access to the El Greco painting because it was acquired by his friend Ignacio Zuloaga in 1905. 

Picasso’s legs have incredible torsion because one leg is kneeling, while the other leg is rising from a kneeling position. This is analogous to the ambiguously posed legs of the figure in the left foreground of Greco’s Vision of Saint John. El Greco deployed this unusual pose several times. (See my “José Clemente Orozco’s Studies in the Michael Wornick Collection,” 2015, San Jose Museum of Art, footnote 8.) 

Picasso’s twisted legs imply dynamism and motion, qualities that are at odds with the figure’s upper body, with its hands-behind-the-head pose. The dynamic legs of Nude Woman with Raised Arms, in conjunction with several preliminary studies that appear to show dance moves, have led scholars to interpret this figure as a dancer. This is evident in the titles they have applied to this painting: Grandé danseuse d’Avignon, Dancer, Danseuse nègre, and Ballerina 2. 

Photo of a series of African sculptures on a piano

Exhibition of African sculpture at the Musée Van Buuren, Brussels, in 2020, with Kota reliquary figures atop a piano. Photograph:

European (and U.S.) audiences have often associated the diamond-shaped base of Kota reliquaries with dancing legs (and with music), whether consciously or unconsciously, beginning with the figure atop the drum in the Trocadéro Heliogravure reproduced above. Picasso himself appears to have made the association between Kota reliquary figures and dance. Moreover, collections of Kota reliquary figures have sometimes been exhibited atop pianos, as in the photographs directly above and below. 

Photo of a piano in a room with various african sculptures on top

Edwin and Cherie Silver’s collection of Kota reliquary figures, as exhibited in their home atop a Steinway piano before they auctioned the works at Sotheby’s in 2017. Photograph: Sotheby’s.

As European colonial powers conquered or dominated African peoples, concerted attempts were made to eradicate traditional religious beliefs. African sculptures were destroyed or taken to Europe, where they served to invigorate early modern artistic traditions. 

Critical developments in the reception of African artifacts took place in New York City in the early 1980s. In February of 1982, the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened its much-anticipated Michael C. Rockefeller Wing, which housed the Department of Primitive Art (the department was renamed in 1991). 

As reflected in Hilton Kramer’s New York Times review, which was titled “The High Art of Primitivism,” this was taken as a sign that “primitive art” was, at long last, welcomed into the hallowed halls of high civilization: 

For with this monumental elevation of the art of primitive cultures to a place of museological parity with the most esteemed masterworks of the ancient and modern worlds, we are entering a new phase not only in the history of taste but in the history of the moral imagination. … the disposition to regard primitive modes of culture and experience as equal in value to our own, and in some respects even superior and more vital – has ceased to be the possession of a minority of cultural visionaries and achieved a new status as part of the mainstream of cultural life.

The exhibition Primitivism in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern opened at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York in 1984 before traveling to Detroit and Dallas. It marked a turning point in public perceptions of tribal art. The exhibition effectively showcased the pervasive influence of tribal works on modern art. Many viewers judged the tribal works — which were of extraordinary quality — to be superior to the modern Western works. 

MoMA’s large, two-volume catalogue featured many contributions to scholarship. Perhaps more importantly, several problematic assumptions made by the essayists, and particularly by the exhibition’s chief curator, William Rubin, the director of the museum’s Department of Painting and Sculpture, were subjected to powerful critiques by several important scholars. None of these were more withering and sustained than those of Thomas McEvilly, which began in an Artforum review and continued in letters-to-the-editor exchanges with Rubin. 

In his review, McEvilly noted: 

No attempt is made to recover an emic, or inside, sense of what primitive esthetics really were or are. … by their [Rubin and Kirk Varnedoe] absolute repression of primitive context, meaning, content, and intention … they have treated the primitives as less than human, less than cultural — as shadows of a culture, their selfhood, their Otherness wrung out of them. … In their native contexts these objects were invested with feelings of awe and dread, not of esthetic ennoblement. 

In the above passage, McEvilley is criticizing the lack of an approach like that utilized in The Language of Beauty in African Art. McEvilley and others derided Rubin’s curatorial assumptions.

The Center for African Art (now the Africa Center) opened in New York City in September of 1984. It organized many important exhibitions, including Art / Artifact: African Art in Anthropology Collections (1987), which examined African works from indigenous perspectives.  

By the early 1980s, artifacts from Africa (and other tribal and court cultures) had taken center stage in the art capital of the U.S. Moreover, this prominence had led to critical reappraisals of long-held prejudices, beliefs, and attitudes pertaining to African cultures and objects. 

The following section features short discussions of particular objects in the Language of Beauty exhibition.

Beauty and Ugliness in Sculptures and Masks

Photo of an african sculpture of two figures

Olowe of Ise (c. 1869–1938), Veranda Post (Opo Ogoga), 1910–14, Yoruba: Ekiti; Ikere, Nigeria Wood and pigment, The Art Institute of Chicago, Major Acquisitions Centennial Fund, 1984.550. Photograph: Art Institute of Chicago.

This is one of four posts that Olowe of Ise made for the palace of the king (ogoga) of Ikere. 

Black and white photo of three african sculptures in situ

Photograph by William Buller Fagg of the palace of the King of Ikere, 1959, with three veranda posts by Olowe of Ise (c. 1869–1938). Photograph: from LOB exhibition didactic.

Three of the posts are visible in the above photograph. The post in the exhibition is in the center. It is missing one of the three subsidiary sculptures visible on the base in the photograph.  

Detail of the female face of an african sculpture

Olowe of Ise (c. 1869–1938), Veranda Post (Opo Ogoga), 1910–14 (detail). Photograph: Art Institute of Chicago.

The diminutive king’s chief wife towers over him (and holds up a beam), while a tiny, subsidiary wife kneels in supplication at his feet. The other small figure represents the trickster god Eshu, who is likewise depicted as a lesser figure than the royal couple.

The queen, who holds the king’s chair, crowned him at the coronation ceremony. The king’s crown — which is significantly larger than the visible portion of his head — symbolizes the spiritual power of his office. The bird alludes to the initial creation of habitable land (accomplished with the assistance of a mythical bird). It is also an archetypal female symbol.

The queen’s bulging eyes convey the belief that she has attained supernatural knowledge. Scale and symbols convey important information to Yoruba viewers. 

Photo of a wooden head rest

Headrest, 19th century, Northern Nguni: probably Zulu; South Africa, wood and pigment, private collection, Belgium. Photograph: “The Language of Beauty in African Art” catalog (hereafter LOB).

Headrests are powerful objects in Zulu culture. They serve as antennas for dreams, which are important conduits to ancestors. Anrita Nettleton titled her book on headrests African Dream Machines (Johannesburg, 2007). Headrests are frequently given by brides to their new husbands. They also acquire increasing powers over generations. 

This headrest has strong anthropomorphic / zoomorphic qualities, seemingly alluding to human females and cattle, with four legs (or two pairs of two legs), and breasts / udders in the center. 

In Southern Africa, cattle are thought to mediate between the living and the dead. Ancestors are deemed important for the fertility of cattle, as well as humans. Cattle were measures of wealth. Consequently, this headrest encapsulates many beliefs pertaining to prosperity and the continuity of the ancestral lineage. 

Photo of a pipe in the shape of a female torso

Pipe, 19th century, Southern Nguni; South Africa, or Southern Sotho; Lesotho, wood, pigment, and iron,
National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, museum purchase, 89-14-16. Photograph: National Museum of African Art.

Both men and women smoked tobacco in the region where this pipe was made, in present-day South Africa or Lesotho. The stem of the pipe is attached to a remarkably carved sculpture of a woman, which extends from her diminutive feet at the bottom to diminutive breasts at the top. She is currently headless, but a removable head (now lost) probably served as a topper. The small notch between her breasts likely served to secure the separately carved head. The sculpture’s torso functioned as the pipe’s bowl, and one can see the form of a more traditional pipe bowl behind the figure’s hip. Men were the carvers of pipes, and no doubt appreciated a beautiful female form like this one. In addition to its quotidian uses, tobacco was associated with ancestral spirits.  

Photo of the back of an African sculpture mad of wood

Ceremonial Ladle, 19th to early 20th century, Dan; probably Cote d’Ivoire, wood, fiber, and pigment, The Cleveland Museum of Art, Severance and Greta Millikin Trust, 2013.52. Photograph: The Cleveland Museum of Art.

Unlike many of the other objects in the exhibition, which were made by and for men, this exceptional object was made for a highly regarded woman. The function of this object is described in lively fashion on the website of the Cleveland Museum: 

An emblem of great prestige, this human-shaped ladle would have been owned by a distinguished married woman recognized for her talents as a farmer and her exceptional generosity and hospitality. One of her responsibilities was to host a grand Feast of Merit when she, along with other highly respected women, prepared food for a large number of local and foreign guests. During the feast the women danced brandishing their rice-filled ladles while singing in strident voices.

A pair of African headdresses

Pair of Headdresses (Ciwara Kun), mid-19th to early 20th century, Bamana: Baninko region, Mali, wood, pigment, metal, brass tacks, and grasses, The Art Institute of Chicago, Ada Turnbull Hertle Endowment, 1965.6–7. Photograph: LOB catalog.

The Bamana prized clarity (jayan) and distinctiveness in their headdresses. The figure on the left is a male antelope (with a large mane), while the figure on the right is female. In anthropomorphic fashion, she has a young antelope on her back. 

Pair of Bamana dancers performing with Ciwara Kun headdresses

Pair of Bamana dancers performing with Ciwara Kun headdresses, Boussin village, Mali, 1970. Photograph (cropped on all sides) by Pascal James Imperato. Photograph: LOB catalog.

The headdresses had to have very clearly delineated features, or they would not be legible during dance performances, such as the one illustrated above. 

The Ciwara dance is normally performed by two dancers. One of them has a male antelope mask; the other has a female mask. The dances represent agriculture, which is why the dancers scratch the ground with sticks. Analogously, antelope scratch the ground during mating rituals, which is why they are associated with farming and fertility. The Bamana also value clarity and discernibility in human behavior. As Wilfried van Damme notes in his catalogue essay, there is “a parallel between aesthetic and ethical ideals.” 

Terra cotta bust of a potential king

Head (possibly a King), 12th to 15th century, Yoruba: Ife, Nigeria, terracotta with traces of pigment and mica, Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, purchase by the Kimbell Art Foundation, AP 1994.04. Photograph: Ruben C. Cordova.

Heads made by the Ife are the most naturalistic sculptures that survive from Africa, which is why they have been so highly prized by Western collectors. Ife heads shocked European sensibilities in the early twentieth century because they so dramatically countered racist assumptions of African cultures as backward, primitive, etc. 

When he encountered Ife heads, the German explorer and ethnologist Leo Frobenius was deeply impressed by what he saw. He identified one bronze head as that of the Greek god Poseidon and claimed that he had found Plato’s Atlantis in Africa. How else could one explain the masterful naturalism exhibited in these works? In 1911, the New York Times, relying on Frobenius, reported that the putative Poseidon head “is entirely devoid of negro characteristics and there is no doubt that it cannot have been of local casting” (“German Discovers Atlantis in Africa; Leo Frobenius Says Find of Bronze Poseidon Fixes Lost Continent’s Place.,” Jan. 29, 1911). 

Frobenius described the contemporary residents of the Kingdom of Ife as an “assembly of degenerate and feeble-minded posterity,” and he lamented that they “should be the legitimate guardians of so much loveliness” (quote from a 2010 CNN review of a British Museum exhibition). Frobenius could not believe that Africans could have made these works, nor did he believe that they deserved to keep them. This is European colonialism in a nutshell. Other Europeans credited these sculptures to non-Atlantean Greeks, Italians, or Egyptians.

Some heads from the nearby Kingdom of Benin are relatively naturalistic. None of these are in the LOB exhibition. These works were looted by British troops in 1897, and they are currently subject to the most successful restitution claims. See the New York Times for the latest developments as of July 1, 2022. 

It should be evident that when African sculptors wanted naturalistic sculptures, they were highly capable of making such works. 

At the same time, artifacts from various other African cultures are just as accomplished, when taken in their own terms — rather than evaluated from the perspective of the naturalism developed in classical Greece, or during the Italian Renaissance. 

In fact, before Frobenius made his fateful trip to Africa in 1910, many European modernists had already discovered a new artistic ideal in non-naturalistic sculptures from Africa. African sculpture served as one of the final nails in the coffin of European naturalism, as represented by the enervated traditions of the French Academy, which had already come under assault by avant-garde artists in the mid-nineteenth century, beginning with Courbet. 

The Kimbell’s Ife sculpture clearly represents a particular individual whose unique facial features have been rendered with extraordinary skill — even if the gentle depressions in his forehead and around his eyes and mouth are conventions represented in other Ife sculptures. The unique, bead-covered crown has led to speculation that it represents the Oni (king) of Ife. 

Terra cotta bust, potentially of an african king

Head (possibly a King) (frontal detail), 12th to 15th century. Photograph: Ruben C. Cordova.

The striations that run the length of the head are thought to represent scarification patterns made to enhance beauty. This kind of body modification was anathema in the European Christian tradition, which held that the human body was an inviolable replica of the creator’s divine form. To colonial era Europeans, body modification was living proof of barbarism.

The Kimbell head, like other surviving terracotta Ife heads, is thought to have come from a full statue. Some fragments of terracotta bodies have been found. 

Ife heads (long after separation from their bodies) were buried under large trees and periodically disinterred to preside over rituals. The precise original function of these sculptures is unknown, though they appear to depict members of the royal court. 

Traditionally, Yoruba women were the artists who worked in clay, while men worked in metal, stone, and wood, so it is possible that this work was made by a woman.

Mask with twisted embellishments swirling from the head

Attributed to Elim Abassi Ekpenyong, Efut; Lower Cross River region, Nigeria, Crest Mask, collection of Toby and Barry Hecht, Bethesda, Maryland. Photograph: LOB catalog.

This Crest Mask has a high degree of facial naturalism, coupled with an astonishing coiffure that spirals out in five directions. It is likely an exaggerated example of hairstyles worn by women who had performed the rituals that made them eligible for marriage. 

Several groups in Nigeria and Cameroon made works by stretching wet antelope skin over a carved wooden armature. The skin became taut when it dried. These masks, held in place by basketry caps, were worn over the heads of costumed male dancers, who wore meshed white suits. For a photograph of costumed dancers, see Rand African Art

Detail of a wooden reliquary figure

Attributed to the Master of Ntem (Gabonese, 1800-1860), Reliquary guardian figure (eyema-o-byeri), Mvaï group, Fang peoples, wood, Dallas Museum of Art, The Eugene and Margaret McDermott Art Fund, Inc., 2000.3.McD. Photograph: Dallas Museum of Art.

The Fang peoples, who had migrated from the northeast, venerated ancestors with cylindrical reliquary containers similar to some of those used by the Kota. These reliquaries likewise made the power of their ancestors portable. Relics from important ancestors and other potent ancestral objects were protected by guardian figures carved from wood. These figures also served as exemplars for boys when they were initiated and taught history and religious practices.

The Fang valued symmetry and gently curved surfaces, qualities evident in the above example. Guardian figures expressed vigilance by means of inlaid shell eyes, as well as bared teeth. 

Photo of two seated reliquary figures

Photograph by Hans Gehna of two Fang reliquaries with guardian figures sitting atop them, Essula village, southern Cameroon, c. 1913. Photo: Eternal Ancestors catalog, 2007.

The above photograph, with a front and a side view of a pair of reliquaries, shows how the guardians sat on the top of the reliquaries. It is one of the few visual documents that portrays the relationship between Frang guardians and reliquaries. In the example in the left of the photograph, one can see a cord that secured the feet of that figure to the lid of the reliquary. These guardian figures typically also had a post behind the legs that went into the reliquary container. One can see this peg behind the legs in the figure from the Dallas Museum of Art that is reproduced above.  

According to the Eternal Ancestors catalog, many reliquary statues were offered for sale to Europeans in the early twentieth century, though there was reluctance to part with the reliquaries themselves and with the relics they contained. 

Wood figure

Female Figure (Nkishi), 19th century, Luba; Democratic Republic of the Congo, wood, pigment, beads, fiber, and hair (probably elephant), Private collection. Courtesy of Schweizer Premodern, New York. Photograph: LOB catalog.

This sculpture, a benevolent power figure, is the embodiment of buya, which means beauty and goodness. She holds her breasts to symbolize royal and dynastic secrets, as well as fertility. Women served as spirit mediums to Luba rulers because only their bodies were sufficiently strong to hold the most powerful spirits. 

This figure has an elongated torso with prominent scarifications and an extended navel. These features emphasize the abdomen as site of power. The figure’s arms and legs are relatively small. 

Wood male figure

Male Figure (Bwanga bwa Bwimpe), 19th century,
Luluwa; Democratic Republic of the Congo, wood and pigment, Collection of Jan Calmeyn, Sint-Niklaas, Belgium. Photograph: LOB catalog.

Prominent scarification is a distinguishing characteristic of Luluwa sculpture. This male figure stands on stout, short legs. His elongated neck is extreme — even for a culture for which neck elongation is a defining characteristic. In fact, the head and neck of this figure are longer than its torso or legs. The intricate and pronounced scarification patterns reference a form of body modification that was no longer practiced when this statue was made. Such figures represented ancestral figures that afforded protection to their living descendants.   

African helment mask

Helmet Mask (possibly Komo Kun), 20th century, Senufo: probably Tyedumbele; Côte d’Ivoire, wood, pigment, antelope horns, ivory, and cowrie shells, Collection of Laura and John Arnold, Houston. Photograph: LOB catalog.

The Komo society is an association of blacksmiths that wields considerable social and magical powers. This trade was highly respected. A great deal of technical knowledge had to be mastered in order to forge ore into weapons and tools. Moreover, it was believed that powerful spiritual forces also had to be managed during this process. A helmet masks was strapped to the top of a dancer’s head during a Komo society meetings (which were only open to initiates).

Helmet mask

Helmet Mask (possibly Komo Kun) (detail), 20th century, Senufo: probably Tyedumbele; Côte d’Ivoire, wood, pigment, antelope horns, ivory, and cowrie shells, Collection of Laura and John Arnold, Houston. Photograph: Ruben C. Cordova.

In their appearance, the masks were intended to be awesome and fear-provoking. Horns and warthog tusks — and sometimes other powerful and dangerous / protective materials such as claws and porcupine quills — were incorporated into these masks. This example from the Arnold collection features such a remarkable profusion of horns and tusks (seemingly pointing in every direction) that one can almost imagine it as a porcupine of horns, compounded by a long, crocodile-like jaw with large teeth at its bottom. 

African helmet mask

Helmet Mask (possibly Komo Kun) (rear view), 20th century, Senufo: probably Tyedumbele; Côte d’Ivoire, wood, pigment, antelope horns, ivory, and cowrie shells, Collection of Laura and John Arnold, Houston. Photograph: Ruben C. Cordova.

The purpose of the mask is to harness the powers of the untamed in order to terrify and to intimidate. To this end, various materials were applied to it, including mud, herbs, and the blood from sacrificial animals. These substances account for the unusual surface of the mask. All materials contributed to the energy (nyama) of the mask, which embodied dibi, a quality antithetical to jayan (the latter was discussed above in connection with Ciwara sculptures). One scholar related dibi to “darkness, obscurity a very dangerous place.” These masks embodied fierce, dangerous, and irrational animal powers, which is why they were meant to be unknowable, and thus illegible. Dangerous agglomerated objects (horns, teeth, etc.) were partially obscured with magical substances in order to invoke the terrors of the unknown.

Wood, African Helmet Crest Mask

Helmet Crest Mask (Mambu) 19th to early 20th century, Aghem; Cameroon, wood and pigment, Malcolm Collection, courtesy of Schweizer Premodern, New York. Photograph: Ruben C. Cordova.

In addition to masks that invoke terror and fearsomeness, “ugly” masks — those that violate the norms and standards of beauty in a given African community — can also have a purpose that is comic. These masks, including the Helmet Crest Mask illustrated above, are devoid of menacing characteristics, such as the horns, tusks, and teeth featured in the Senufo mask previously discussed. Comic masks are a caricature of the beautiful. They are “wrong,” but their disproportions are not menacing — they are merely ridiculous. In Cameroon, costumed dancers wearing such masks would have preceded dancers with more powerful masks in funerary rites. 

More generally, performers with comic masks sometimes served as buffoons or court jesters in sub-Saharan Africa. They could even criticize powerful figures with impunity (as was the case with court jesters in Europe). Comic masks are public, and they are not taken seriously. The most dangerous masks, on the other hand, are wielded by secret societies, and are hidden from the polity at large. They are all the more frightening because they cannot be seen, just as the most unspeakable fears cannot be articulated. 

African mask with white, black, and red detailing

Mask (Kifwebe), 19th to early 20th century, Songye; Democratic Republic of the Congo, wood and pigment, Museum Rietberg, Zurich, gift of Eduard von der Heydt, RAC 302. Photograph: LOB catalogue.

This Kifwebe (the plural is Bifwebe) mask is male, due to its brightly colored stripes and pointed crest. Female masks are white with muted browns, have a rounded head crest, and they are associated with positive qualities, including health, peace, goodness, and beauty. 

Frontal view of an African Mask with red, white and black detailing

Mask (Kifwebe) (frontal view), 19th to early 20th century, Songye; Democratic Republic of the Congo, wood and pigment,
Museum Rietberg, Zurich, gift of Eduard von der Heydt, RAC 302. Photograph: Ruben C. Cordova.

Utilized by the Songye as well as their Luba neighbors, Bifwebe masks depict strange and hard to describe entities, which are not human, but not wholly animal or spiritual, either. The masked dancers served as emissaries for the elite. Brightly colored masks such as this one, with protruding, vigilant eyes and a powerful mouth, served to facilitate social control. A photograph, taken by Father Teenstra in 1934, showed almost 50 costumed dancers with a wide variety of Bifwebe masks.

Power Figures

Wood male figure

Male Figure (Nkishi), 19th to early 20th century, Songye; Democratic Republic of the Congo, wood, pigment, copper, metal, glass beads, raffia, antelope horns, goat horn, and civet hide, Dallas Museum of Art, The Eugene and Margaret McDermott Art Fund, Inc., 2014.4.1.McD. Photograph: Dallas Museum of Art.

The scale of this figure (21 inches high) suggests that it functioned as a community power figure that would be carried in public during times of crisis, using poles that extended through the holes under its arms. 

Its large head is further empowered by four horns (three antelope and one goat) that, like the cavity in its belly, were stuffed with powerful substances that were thought to have magical effects. 

Male figure

Attributed to the Chiloango River Master, Male Figure (Nkisi Nkondi: Mangaaka), 19th century, Kongo: Yombe; Angola, Cabinda, or Democratic Republic of the Congo, wood, pigment, iron, ceramic, fiber, textile, and glass, Horstmann Collection, Zug, Switzerland. Photograph: LOB catalog.

A Nkisi Nkondi (plural Minkisi) is a power figure. Mangaaka is a word that refers specifically to the preeminent juridical and spiritual force in Kongo society. This is one of only twenty surviving examples of a Mangaaka power figure, which have the attributes of Kongo chiefs. The statue represents an imposing, final evolution of the Kongo power figure. As large community statues, they guaranteed agreements and contracts — the nails, screws, and blades that were hammered into them each served to seal a pact. The statues also fought evil. Consequently, they — of course — served as potent weapons against colonial occupiers, who had devastated West-central African and had depopulated it through the slave trade. That is why colonial authorities were anxious to destroy these statues and to disempower the ritual priests (nganga) that operated them. The latter were rightly viewed as leaders of resistance.  

All of these surviving Mangaaka sculptures are around four feet high and are carved from a single piece of wood by a sculptor selected by a local chief. The great powers these statues possessed were derived less from their powerful forms than from the magical substances (bilongo) that were placed on them and inside of them. This spiritually charged matter was placed behind the statue’s eyes and inside the compartments built into a large abdominal cavity. In the example in the Kimbell exhibition, these internal compartments in the abdomen are covered by a resin ball and a mirror. Some examples have a cowrie shell (imported from the Indian ocean) pressed into the resin ball instead of a mirror. 

The example in the Metropolitan Museum is missing its resin ball, so one can see individual compartments that were carved into the wood. This link features twenty-one views and details of the Met’s Mangaaka Power Figure, including the stomach cavity.

various views of a male african figure

Power Figure (Nkisi N’Kondi: Mangaaka) (four views), 19th century, inventoried 1912. Kongo peoples; Yombe group. Democratic Republic of the Congo, Chiloango River region; Republic of the Congo; Angola, Cabinda. Wood (Vitex thonneri De Wild.), iron, resin, cowrie shell, animal hide and hair, ceramic, plant fiber, textile, pigment; H. 52 in. (132 cm), W. 19 1/4 in. (49 cm), D. 13 3/4 in. (35 cm). Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, Belgium. Photograph: Metropolitan Museum, “The Materials that Make Mangaaka” (Not in theexhibition.)

Only a few of the surviving Mangaaka figures retain their resin beards (which also had magical substances pressed into them) and their raffia skirts (raffia bundles with powerful medicines were also wrapped around these figures’ waists). I reproduce the example from Tervuren to show the beard and the skirt. The Tervuren Mangaaka has a fringe of monkey hair and hide that extends from the beard. Presumably, all of these power figures had a fringe of this sort, though some might have had more hair than hide, as in the example from the Wereldmuseum in Rotterdam (see the illustration in this link from the Metropolitan Museum, which also features a black-and-white monkey that is a likely source of the Wereldmuseum figure’s fur). 

A significant amount of the original colors survive on the face of the Tervuren statue, as well as on the platform beneath its feet. Initially, the statue was painted black. White and red clay were applied to the face, and these substances also outlined the chieftain’s hat and the armlets and bracelets. The black and white armlet bands signified the connection between the mortal and the ancestral, and also symbolized power over life and death. The lips were originally red, which dramatically highlighted the filed teeth. 

In the statue in the Wereldmuseum, circles of black, red, and white also adorn the resin beard. 

Detail of the face of a carved african figure

Attributed to the Chiloango River Master, Male Figure (Nkisi Nkondi: Mangaaka), 19th century, Kongo: Yombe; Angola, Cabinda, or Democratic Republic of the Congo, wood, pigment, iron, ceramic, fiber, textile, and glass, Horstmann Collection, Zug, Switzerland. Photograph: Ruben C. Cordova.

In this view of the Mangaaka figure at the Kimbell, one can see traces of colored clay on its face, which is very beautifully carved. The zigzag pattern demarcates the edge of the chieftain’s (or priest’s) hat. 

The nails driven into the sides and bottom of its face were put there to hold the resin beard in place, rather than to mark an agreement or to bring about some positive effect. 

Met curator Alisa LaGamma (“The Recently Acquired Kongo Magaaka Power Figure,” Metropolitan Museum Journal, v. 43, 2008) provides a good overview of Kongo power figures: 

During the nineteenth century, thousands of minkisi collected along the coast entered Europe’s newly founded ethnographic collections. They were also targeted for destruction by missionaries as pagan idols and confiscated by colonial authorities as agents of resistance; by the first quarter of the twentieth century, their creation was effectively suppressed, and many were even burned in bonfires. The generic characterization of such artifacts as “fetishes” by European sources has denied their roles as carefully calibrated diagnostic tools used by ritual specialists for investigating antisocial acts and as catalysts for divine intervention.

The journal article cited above can be downloaded here. LaGamma’s catalog, Kongo: Power and Majesty (Metropolitan Museum, 2015), which brought together fifteen of the twenty surviving Mangaaka power figures, cannot be downloaded, but it can be previewed from the same link, as can an illustrated interview with the curator.  

LaGamma notes that the figure’s specific pose (pakala) is one of aggressive challenge, and that it has been related to the vonganana attitude, which is an assertion of strength. The figure’s glaring ceramic eyes inspired fear and also denoted “unrelenting scrutiny” for all matters brought before it. 

In her article, LaGamma also explains why the abdomen is associated with power:

In Kongo culture the belly, or mooyo, is associated with life and the soul. Its projection is associated with an organ that Kongo peoples believe to be present in those capable of consuming others mystically. Mangaaka’s protruding belly signals his capacity to combat such agents.

Detail of the face of an african figure

Male Figure (Nkisi Nkondi) (detail), 19th century, Kongo: Yombe; Democratic Republic of the Congo, wood, pigment, metal, glass, and fiber, private collection. Courtesy of Schweizer Premodern, New York. Photograph: Ruben C. Cordova. Several different types of hardware are evident in this detail.

LaGamma notes that the different types of hardware that were hammered into power figures had specific ritual purposes: nsonso (long nails) were used to seal vows; mbeezi (blades) were used to unite an individual and the community; baaku (knives with flared heads) were “used to eradicate evil in a community.”

Incidentally, it is thought that the idea of hammering nails into the power figures might have come from imported images of St. Sebastian. Crucifixes might have been another source of inspiration.

Photo of a wood figure

Female (?) Figure (Nkisi Nkondi) (detail), 19th century, Kongo: Kamba; Republic of the Congo, wood, pigment, and iron, private collection, France. Photograph: Ruben C. Cordova.

This is though to be a female Nkisi. Since women were viewed as intercessors between the living and the supernatural, female minkisi brought additional powers. 

The preponderance of long blades in this statue is probably a function of its damaged condition: the smaller hardware probably fell out. Incidentally, if a nkisi didn’t want to enforce an agreement, it would reject the implement that had been hammered into it.

Antique photo of three carved power figures

Fétiches du Bas-Congo (Fetishes from the lower Congo), Three Power Figures [Minkisi]), photograph, 1913–14; postcard, early 20th century, 5 1/4 x 3 3/8 in. (13.4 x 8.6 cm), Holly W. Ross Postcard Collection, Princeton University. Photograph: Metropolitan Museum.

The above picture shows three substantial minkisi. Their scale means they were for public use. A large male figure is in the center, with a smaller figure on the left that bears some resemble to a Mangaaka, and a dog-shaped nkisi known as a mbwa. A male nkisi was often paired with a female nkisi, and / or a dog-shaped nkisi. Since they each had unique powers, they were all the more potent in conjunction with one another.  

Sculpture of a power dog

Two-Headed Dog Figure (Nkisi Nkondi Mbwa or Nkisi Kozo),19th century, Kongo: Yombe; possibly Democratic Republic of the Congo, wood, pigment, metal, and resin, private collection, courtesy of Galerie Bernard Dulon, Paris. Photograph: Robert LaPrelle, Kimbell Art Museum.

Dogs have greater senses of smell, sight, and hearing than humans, so a dog-shaped nkisi should have heightened sensory powers in comparison to a human-shaped nkisi

Sculpture of a two headed dog

Two-Headed Dog Figure (Nkisi Nkondi Mbwa or Nkisi Kozo), 19th century, Kongo: Yombe; possibly Democratic Republic of the Congo, wood, pigment, metal, and resin, private collection, courtesy of Galerie Bernard Dulon, Paris. Photograph: Ruben C. Cordova.

Since Mangaaka are hunters, it would be logical to pair them with dogs, as hunting companions. A two-headed dog should be even more potent than a single headed dog. 

Photo of a bonfire

Photograph of bonfire, c. 1912-13, with men who are holding power figures that they are about to throw into the flames. Near mission post of Kingoyi, presently in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photograph: Art Institute of Chicago, Charged by Power Interactive Feature.

It is impossible to determine how many power figures perished in flames, under coercion by religious and colonial authorities.

Detail of the face of an african sculpture

Attributed to the Chiloango River Master, Male Figure (Nkisi Nkondi: Mangaaka) (detail of head), 19th century, Kongo: Yombe; Angola, Cabinda, or Democratic Republic of the Congo, wood, pigment, iron, ceramic, fiber, textile, and glass, Horstmann Collection, Zug, Switzerland. Photograph: Ruben C. Cordova.

I can imagine a future in which large exhibitions like The Language of Beauty in African Art will draw heavily from collections in Africa, after many more objects in European and U.S. collections have been returned to the places of their origin. 



Ruben C. Cordova is an art historian and curator who is a regular contributor to Glasstire. He has previously reviewed the following exhibitions at the Kimbell: Flesh & Blood: Paintings from Naples’ Capodimonte Museum, Buddha, Shiva, Lotus, Dragon’: New York’s Asia Society Masterpieces, and J. M. W. Turner as Painter of the Modern World. He has also written about the museum’s former curator, Kientz, and the Hispanic Society: Guillaume Kientz Leaves Fort Worth’s Kimbell to Lead Rejuvenated Hispanic Society in New York


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Clif Tinker August 14, 2022 - 09:34

Great article Ruben. I enjoyed reading this especially after seeing the exhibit with you.

Ruben C. Cordova August 15, 2022 - 14:31

Thanks, Clif. I’m glad you joined me for the exhibition. It had many great pieces, and I don’t think we will see an exhibition of this size for a long time.


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