The Kongo people occupied a vast territory in west central Africa, north and south of the mouth of the Congo River in today’s Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cabinda and Angola. Kongo subgroups, including the Yombe, Vili, Bembe, Sundi, and others, shared a common culture, social organization and language, Kikongo. Southern groups were subject to the larger Kingdom of Kongo, whereas the northern Kongo, on the Loango coast, were organized in the smaller Kingdom of Loango. Both empires were highly developed states established well before the arrival of Portuguese navigators in 1483. At the center of wide spanning trading networks, they existed until the 19th century.
Today the Kongo are most famous for their creation of religious sculptures called power figures, or minkisi (sing. nkisi). The guiding idea behind the creation of minkisi was that powerful malevolent or benevolent forces could be manipulated into aiding humans with the solution of problems ranging from ill health, infertility, and other physical issues to misfortune and danger as well as more abstract difficulties such as asocial behavior, legal dispute and crime.
The procedure for composing a nkisi could be very complex and extend over days or weeks. A diviner (the nganga) and the other participants had to obey to a prescribed set of rules which could include dietary restrictions, the performance of chants and rhythms, as well as prayers during the creation period. The nkisi was intended as a container for specific supernatural powers and had to be inviting both on an aesthetic and mystical level. Figurative sculptures were created by professional carvers, some of whom were well known for the quality of their work. The nganga gave iconographic instructions and, upon completion, activated the nkisi through the insertion of animal, vegetable and mineral materials known as “medicines” (milongo or bilongo) that invoked through their substances, names, forms or provenance the powers the nkisi was intended to control.
The necessary animating ingredients were inserted into cavities inside the figures, often behind the eyes, inside the head or abdomen, or they were attached or suspended in pouches, neckbands, belts etc. Abdominal resin or mud packages were often “sealed” with mirror-glass imported from Europe. Once animated, the nkisi was an “alive” powerful being, analogous to a human. Each nkisi had a name and its own personality.
The most violent minkisi were called minkondi (sing. nkondi). They usually show an aggressive pose, either with one arm upraised, holding a spear, or with arms akimbo. Nails, knife blades and other pieces of iron were inserted into the sculpture in order to “arouse” the nkisi to perform the work it was intended to, but they could also represented the physical pain that the target, a human disobeying the social rule enforced by the nkisi, would experience. The more efficient the nkisi was in the solution of problems, the more often it was frequented, resulting over time in an abundance of metal pieces inserted in their body.