Kongo Nail Power Figure by the Master of the Detroit Mangaaka, Chiloango River Region, Democratic Republic of the Congo
- wood, porcelain, metal
Allan Stone, New York
S2 Gallery, Sotheby's New York, Hunters and Gatherers: The Art of Assemblage, November 18 - December 16, 2011
Kevin D. Dumouchelle, Power Incarnate: Allan Stone's Collection of Sculpture from the Congo, Greenwich, Connecticut, 2011, p. 71
Lisa Dennison and Adam Gopnick (eds.), Hunters and Gatherers: The Art of Assemblage, New York, 2011, p. 92-93
No author, "Rendezvous at Sotheby's", Tribal Arts Magazine, Vol. XVIII:2, No. 71, Spring 2014, p. 34
In 1977 the art historian Ezio Bassani identified a group of Kongo Nail Power Figures which share a common set of stylistic characteristics, speculating that they originated in the same workshop or workshops (Bassani 1977: 36-40). Of the seven works he initially identified, six had documented early collecting dates between 1898 and 1912. Three of these figures were accompanied by specific documentation of their geographic origin, and in all three cases indeed the same region was reported: near the Chiloango River, which extends from the Atlantic Ocean through present-day Cabinda (Angola), and along the border between Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Subsequent scholarship has added to this group of sculptures, which are clearly closely related in date, origin, sculptural design, and ritual function.
In addition to the precious geographical information contained in the documentation of the Chiloango Region group are important data about the subject and ritual function of the sculptures. Several corroborating reports indicate that these sculptures embody the powerful character of the enforcer Mangaaka - as LaGamma (2008: 203) notes, the "form, created as a worthy vessel for the manifestation of Mangaaka, personifying an abstract and boundless power, conveyed extraordinary strength and authority. In Kongo society the citizenry of a community presented themselves to a massive Mangaaka figure as the highest court of appeal to seal and guarantee important covenants, end disputes, regain wholeness of mind and body, and confront adversaries." LaGamma suggests that the group identified by Bassani should be identified by this standard as a sculptural genre, rather than to a particular artist: she continues (2008: 207), based "on the visual evidence [...] I would suggest that while the ten examples identified by Bassani (as well as others in the Kongo corpus that have since been likewise associated with the Chiloango River Master's circle) belong to the distinct Mangaaka sculptural genre, it is unlikely that they represent the work of a single hand or atelier. Although the authors of these complex large-scale works clearly embraced many significant conventions of an established prototype, stylistic nuances point to many different authors' interpretations of a paradigm rather than the vision of an individual sculptor."
Two of the most impressive masterpieces of the Chiloango Mangaaka corpus are today perhaps the two most famous Kongo sculptures in the United States. The first was formerly in the Museum für Völkerkunde, Leipzig, and was acquired in 1976 by the Detroit Institute of Art (inv. no. “76.79”); the second was acquired in 2008 by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and today stands at the entrance to the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing’s African Art galleries. Both are of monumental scale and exceptional artistic quality. Regarding the Metropolitan Mangaaka Power Figure, LaGamma (2008: 201) notes: “This seminal masterpiece of African sculpture eloquently transcends its original milieu to inspire wonder as it did on the coast of western Central Africa more than a century ago. Rarely have cultural artifacts pulled out of context so evoked the sensations of awe and intimidation in a museum context.” The Detroit Mangaaka is similarly celebrated; in his important 1980 publication Fetiches a Clous du Bas Zaire, Raoul Leuhard called the Detroit figure “L’un des chefs-d’oevre de la statuaire du royaume de Kongo.”
The present statue from the collection of Allan Stone clearly shares the sculptural criteria of the general Chiloango Mangaaka group with its delicately-carved head, semicircular porcelain-inlaid eyes, fleshy, naturalistic lips, posture with arms akimbo and head projecting forward, and large, flat, rectangular feet; it was grouped by Lehuard with the corpus of the region in his 1989 monograph Art Bakongo. At 50 centimeters tall, however, it is considerably smaller in scale than any other known figure in the corpus. Considering the public function of figures embodying Mangaaka, although it is closely related to that tradition, it is likely that this small-scale figure does not represent Mangaaka but rather a different spirit.
Examining the Chiloango Mangaaka corpus more closely, specific hands can be discerned. The Stone Chiloango Statue relates specifically to the Detroit Mangaaka, and is nearly identical in certain idiosyncratic details. In addition to the characteristics which place it within the general corpus, the Stone Chiloango and the Detroit figure share the same overall shape of the forward-thrust face; slightly arched eyebrows rendered in relief with diagonal hatch marks connoting hair; a small, detailed nose; and lips sculpted with a raised outer ridge defining the edges; defined calves; and large rectangular feet. All of these details are so similar that both sculptures can be identified as works of the same artist. We do not know this artist's name, but his genius survives in the body of his work. In absence of our knowledge of his actual name, this artist should be called "The Master of the Detroit Mangaaka".