Ancient Spirits Incarnated in Rare U.S. Exhibition of African Ritual Art

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Most of the objects now regarded as Kongo art were made for use in ritual or ceremonial contexts. In Kongo thought, unusual powers and abilities are derived from traffic with spirits from the land of the dead.

Partly because of the historical importance of the Kongo Kingdom and partly because of the romantic appeal of royalty, attention tends to focus on chiefs and their insignia. According to the official exhibit catalog, by the time that most collecting of artifacts began, the Kongo king had been reduced to a mere chief among chiefs. Furthermore, the chiefs themselves generally had been overshadowed by ritual complexes called minkisi, which dominated political and economic processes everywhere.

In Kongo thought, an nkisi (pl. minkisi), was a personalized force from the invisible land of the dead that had chosen, or been induced, to submit itself to a degree of human control effected through ritual performances. The ritual could be more or less elaborate, take anywhere from a few minutes to many years to complete, and require the participation of any number of persons, from a single individual to an entire village or more.

Minkisi, or power figures, were crafted to defend against or enter into union with these spirits depending on the spirits' intent. The exhibit offers a diverse, colorful display of these power figures from the Woyo, Yombe, and Kongo peoples of Angola.

Ambo Peoples

The exhibition continues with pieces from the Ambo peoples of southwestern Angola who incorporate 12 distinct groups, including the Ndonga, Nyaneka, and Kwanyama peoples.

Throughout this region, men's lives centered on cattle herding while women were prepared from birth to fulfill their dual roles as mothers and farmers. The girls' socialization as caregiver began with caring for her younger siblings and cousins, many times in the form of ovana. According to the exhibit catalog, in some areas, a girl at all times held under her tongue four or more small quartz stones called children, or ovana, which she removed only after she had produced a child. After this time the ovana were passed down to another young girl in her family. As these practices suggest, the Ambo and Nyaneka held in awe women's creative powers as the guardians and nurturers of fertility.

Like girls everywhere, Ambo and Nyaneka girls received dolls from family members or made dolls for themselves out of materials they found such as clay and fabric scraps.

The dolls were thought to be of great significance because they were seen as the future offspring of the entire family. Early researchers and collectors were surprised that the Ambo and Nyaneka resisted even allowing a doll to be seen when not being carried by a girl, and a young man who met a girl carrying a doll had to give her a gift or suffer her curses.

The exhibit's vibrant collection of ritual dolls include pieces from the Kwanyama and Mwila Nyaneka peoples.

Bidjogo Peoples

The final room of the exhibit highlights the art of the Bidjogo. The roughly 15,000 members of the Bidjogo people inhabit some 20 islands and islets off the west coast of Guinea-Bissau, to which they belong politically. Not all these islands are permanently occupied, but they are cultivated by the burn method; the scorched fields become rice paddies fed by the frequent summer rainfall.

Protected against acculturation by distance, the Bidjogo have managed to stay deeply attached to their traditions, including the custom of initiation. According to the exhibit catalog, the stages of initiation for boys and girls require a mask appropriate to each age group. Today, the Bidjogo still hold highly expressive costumed performances during village festivals. The exhibit offers a spectacular group of these costumes including monumental masks representing bovines, sharks, buffaloes and birds.

Following its premiere at the Museum for African Art in New York and its exhibition now at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, In the Presence of Spirits will travel to the Birmingham Museum of Art in Birmingham, Alabama, before returning to the newly refurbished galleries at the National Museum of Ethnology in Lisbon.

The exhibition at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art runs from June 10 through September 16.

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