Voices of A Kongo Power Object
By Talia Abrahams
Christ is the austere central protagonist in this assemblage of material (figures 1 and 2). The exact center of the entire object might lie between the eight incised ribs of Christ’s body, or just below the ribcage where two vertical lines tentatively delineate the abdomen. Immediately above the ribcage, his arms branch outward, hyperextended and curving down as to exaggerate their unnatural adhesion to the cross, to suffering. His hands are squared off and pressed into the cross’s flat plane, and a small sphere in each marks the agent of torture. A heavy head leans into where a shoulder should be, thus drawing more attention to its cast shadow. His lips are wide, full, frowning; his nose is volumetric like the cheek bones that curve into its wake; his eyes are sculpted with mimetic subtlety that activates the face even in sleep, or death.
This sensitivity of the sculpture is what first drew me to it. It made the space in front of its vitrine seem fragile, and thus miraculous that I was alone in the gallery, though it was midafternoon on a weekday and the museum was relatively empty. Had there been more people around me, I would have feared that this fragile space could break, and its effect lost to me. I was in a small, dark gallery within the Arts of Africa section of the Musee du Quai Branly, in Paris, France. Dim lights illuminated vitrines set into the walls, which housed a diverse array of Kongo power objects (minkisi, sing. nkisi) from central Africa. Inside one of these vitrines is this sculpted Christ figure, part of a fascinating multi-media object. According to its accompanying label text it was used and made by Kongo peoples, whose term for it was nkangi kiditu (object of Christ). It was likely constructed in the late nineteenth century in a municipality of the declining Kingdom of Kongo, somewhere in the southern regions of the Lower Congo River. I was here, in Paris, to study art history with my university. Upon seeing this object, I embarked upon a year long research project culminating into a thesis to explore its form and meaning. This project would eventually bring me back to this gallery, where the wonder of my initial observations seemed ever suspended in that same fragile space.
Christ appears alone in the field of his cross, until one’s eye reaches the end of each cross’s arm. Here, two figures, ambiguous due to abstraction or the erosion of the wood, sit with bowed arms and hands fused in prayer (figure 3). These are the most three dimensionally rendered of all the carved figures, and as such, bring the crucifix into the expansive multi-material world. Their body language alludes to the passion and mourning of the crucifixion: the way the figure on our left falls slightly to the left, and the way the right figure’s head tilts ever so slightly upward, communicate the emotion depicted below despite the damages of time and the elements. And yet, as subtly as they evoke the narrative world of the crucifixion, the mud and feathers climb up behind their backs and insist upon an altogether different material signification. The organic features themselves seem an unlikely match for a Christian object, even in the Kongolese tradition. But despite these unusual combinations, great care has been made to interweave these seemingly disparate elements. And sitting at the threshold, in the window between crucifix and a spectacular twisted branch, are these mysterious praying figures.
I recall stopping to gaze at the object, then feeling as though the delicate space was close to breaking, I circled around the gallery and appreciated the other power objects. Power objects refer to a particular category of Kongo material culture. A nkisi can assume a plethora of forms: usually it is a wooden sculpture that can be anthropomorphic or zoomorphic, it could be a pouch, or a variety of gourds. Regardless of form, the nkisi is a container. It contains a simbi (pl. bisimbi), which is an evocation of an ancestor who has achieved the status of spirit (not all ancestors can be bisimbi). More literally, it is a container for medicines, which include a wide array of organic materials particular to that nkisi, that imbue it with specific power. To create this power is the domain of a specialist or expert, called nganga. A nganga (pl. bananga) is a healer, priest, priestess, or sacred interlocutor qualified to mediate between earthly and spiritual realms. The reason for crafting and evoking a nkisi can be diverse, ranging from healing an injury or disease, consecrating a pact or treaty, avenging a wrong, or promoting fertility. In order to perform its duties, the simbi contained in the material object must be inspired or provoked. This included activating the nkisi’s specialized ingredients as well as performing a particular ritual that may have involved blood sacrifice, chants, or nailing and affixing other material onto the exterior of the object. There was no singular process, and no two minkisi were identical. Each was a product of a specific interaction or experience, inextricably linked to unique circumstances of the receiver’s life, or the troubled person for whom the nganga creates the nkisi. According to most scholars, minkisi were connected to Kongo cosmology, which describes the world as a fluid line between the natural and supernatural. Since minkisi are material intermediaries of the interrelated natural and supernatural, minkisi were not limited to spiritual or religious spaces. Minkisi functions were diverse because of the diversity of spaces where intermediaries were called. Likewise, the materials they drew upon were not limited to spiritual-religious sources. Their form becomes an ideational ground of political and social materiality and imagery.
I returned to the crucifix’s low-lit stall, once satisfied that I allowed the field of its aura to breathe long enough. The primary components are the wooden crucifix itself, and the bent branch that it is enclosed in. The whole object stands 21 inches (53cm) tall and is 7 inches (18cm) wide. The branch of wood, of the same tone and burnishing as the crucifix, bends up and around the cross, twisting to reveal the aged braiding in the branch’s grain. The wrapping of the wood encircles the crucifix to create an open oval space behind it, precisely centered around Christ. In the lower two quadrants, the open space offers a view into the inner workings of the object. There are shards of wicker, seemingly unbound and broken from their original patterned structure, with a frayed fibrous border constituting the lower contour of the oval. I realized many months later, late one evening while I sat at my favorite coffee shop and scrutinized photographs of this object, that the hollow, central body of the sculpture may be composed of a deconstructed basket. What appears to be light clay or mud had been applied in the open spaces between the cross and framing branch, congealing like coral in bubbling, coarse forms. Tucked into holes in the lower right, adjacent to the base, are small, dark bird feathers. The wood of the crucifix’s surface is weathered and smooth, except for incisions hiding in its uneven blackish brown and red hues (figure 4). The “X” shaped incisions are faintly visible above and below Christ, and two more are squeezed and stretched vertically in the tight horizontal space between the edge of each cross arm and Christ’s own arm. I grew to be particularly intrigued by these incisions because of the way they revealed themselves to me, like ghosts, only after I had become extremely familiar with the object and how they seemed to whisper on the edge of erasure.
Contemplating a quite different art form, I am reminded of Toni Morrison's Beloved. Each time I revisit this novel, I am moved by its surrealistic contemplation of wholeness. Bodies, timelines, emotions, language, the line between life and death, are fragmented and put back together in confused assemblies. I open to this page, “Nothing left to bathe, assuming he even knows how. Will he do it in sections? First her face, then her hands, her thighs, her feet, her back? Ending with her exhausted breasts? And if he bathes her in sections, will the parts hold?”  Turning the page, I read “Everybody knew what she was called, but nobody anywhere knew her name. Disremembered and unaccounted for, she cannot be lost because no one is looking for her… In the place where long grass opens, the girl who waited to be loved and cry shame erupts into her separate parts, to make it easy for the chewing laughter to swallow her all away.”  It strikes me how ‘disremembered’ resonates with ‘dismembered.’ Morrison translates trauma and violence into breakage. When cohesion is broken it yields the space needed to evoke the vast horrors executed by Europeans onto African people. Memory acts as the helpless surgeon, stitching back together parts of stories, characters, and histories.
This object spoke to me of a powerful history because it defied conventional orders of form. Kongo crucifixes figure prominently in African art history, as do minkisi (figures 5 and 6). But here, no straight line of thought could be followed through either of these known traditions (not to say that either of these traditions are well understood in their own right). No two pieces of this object could, or should, be consolidated into a whole, logical narrative by anthropologists, or historians, or art historians. Its significance is in the cracks in these narratives. Cracks that aren’t smoothed over by rational thinking or visual taxonomies. And I think I felt overwhelmed by the way this object’s coarseness exposed memory and experience in front of me. Once, a bird was flying, and it returned to the ground a final time before someone near the Congo river took its feathers. This person might have brushed dirt off a pant leg when he or she stood up after placing a bird feather here, then there. Someone knew of a crucified man—the embodied spirit, the miraculous healer, whose story of life after death seemed familiar in the Kongo worldview and spiritual beliefs—and the power of his image was distinct enough to carve with such sensitivity for this particular object.
As I researched this object over the next year, I found that I best preserved the power of this initial confrontation if I respected fragmentation and located each act of memory. Perhaps the ceremony that once commenced around this object, as Kongo minkisi always functioned within a full-sensory ritual, looked something like those described of santu crosses. A santu was a cruciform nkisi used to promote a successful hunt. Though the Quai Branly object is formally quite different from other santus, I concluded through my research that my object indeed belongs to this category of nkisi. During a santu ritual, participants hammered the cross into the grave of a great hunter, and slowly clapped as they approached it. They offered a gourd of palm wine to the deceased hunter while making the sign of the cross, then poured the wine onto the ground of his grave and rubbed their bodies with the wet earth. These gestures awakened the spirit contained within the nkisi, who then could pursue the desired task on behalf of the initiates. This world of ritual experience, active in my imagination, enlivens the “x” incisions serialized on my object. They vibrate as if newly inscribed by the hand of a santu participant gesturing the sign of the cross each time I looked at it. Instead of appearing faintly, nearing complete erasure, the “x” incisions are awake and new, an energy only perceived if the observer succumbs to an imagined, though historically grounded, memory.
The juxtaposition of elements in a nkisi forces the viewer, whether a ritual participant at the time of the object’s creation or a contemporary museum visitor, to focus on its materiality and follow divergent threads of associations. The image of clay being gathered from a riverbank, that will soon congeal and dry out into coral-like structures, makes one consider the influence of geography on our objects of power. The way the names of the object’s materials sound—crucifix, in Kikongo nkangi kiditu, nkangi, which means bow, sounds like bough, bough of a tree, nkangi kiditu, “bound by Christ”—brings one back to the object itself, a Christ sculpture bound within a tree branch. The carved praying figures now appear to be clapping for us, because we connect them with the sound of clapping santu initiates as they approach. The basket, so cleverly and deliberately contrived as the object’s central structure, stresses the idea of containment: itself containing Christ, himself the container of an all-powerful spirit. The materials, and in sum, the object, vocalize their significance through these associations.
These vocalizations render the object’s space cavernous, filled with chaotic sounds, layers of stories and experience. I contemplate Morrison’s dis(re)membering, and how the prefix dis not only suggests breakage, but also implies an acting subject. One has to imagine not only the chain of contact and experience behind each material moment, but also the collective memory informing the assemblage’s disjointedness—the reason it cannot fit wholly into an existing, single narrative. Standing in the center of the horseshoe-shaped gallery, gazed upon by twenty or so power objects, I also felt the gaze of the actors: those who sailed the slave ships, those who were enslaved, those who staked new political borders, and those who asked their spirits to defend against those borders’ imprisonment. Violence ensues at every turn. In my thesis, I argued that it is this violence that necessitated the creation of such a singular object. I think it is possible that the implicated violence of hunting and Christ’s crucifixion, in addition to beliefs of death and rebirth, were the motivations for choosing Christ’s image to further empower the object’s organic elements. Divination rituals associated with hunting might have functioned to reinstate control over the natural world. The object and its rituals could align a new, troubling, and violent contemporary reality with a history and tradition of nkisi-driven ideologies and exercises. And here, in front of this object, I could see in beautiful, material urgency how events and actors that culminate into what we call “history” were once the center of a stranger’s spiritual experience, an expressive moment within his or her cultural identity, and an exercise of consolation against suffering. And behind this recognition is a meditation on James Baldwin’s words, “the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.” 
In this cavernous space I could meet these actors, and hear their echoes, and pursue their tunnels and paths. These imagined confrontations with hypothesized individuals made me question agency. I thought about how the connection between one’s subjectivity, or sense of self, and body can be broken. Violence, enslavement, upheaval of traditional social, economic, and political structures—all of which pervaded the Kongo lands in the late 19th century—must have diminished control between oneself and his or her environment. Power objects reconciled this breakage by invoking a spirit, through materials infused with deeply held meaning and associations, to act and to heal and to restore, to command in one’s own language solutions of power and negotiation. From my perspective in the museum, witnessing the visual remnants of these commands became an act of listening, an empathetic affirmation of once vital exclamations and gestures lost or deliberately obscured by history.
At the end of Beloved, a character describes his lover “She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.”  This expression constitutes a rare moment in the novel in which wholeness and restoration, through love as an act of generosity, triumph over breakage. Out of value for another, one gathers the fragments and makes them make sense, truly and completely. And as dismemberment follows disremembering, so follows the sewing-back-together after remembering. The object’s disjointed materiality and its contradictory images insisted I notice it. As I stood there in the gallery in Paris, I know it manifested a delicate aura privileging me to enter it. Yet this object persisted to move me because I created space, by immersing myself into memory and experience. Many who are affected by an initial confrontation with an object intentionally avoid my path of research and investigation, in fear of betraying or negating that first emotional encounter. But carving this tunnel is less academic than hypnotic, a cognitive spiral winding between my mind and those of infinite someone-elses, channeling me into that space where understanding history meets empathy.
 Wyatt MacGaffey, “Complexity, Astonishment, and Power: The Personhood of Objects,” in Kongo Political
Culture (Bloomington, IN: Indiana Univ. Press, 2000), 79.
 Ibid, 79-82.
 Barbaro Martinez-Ruiz, Kongo Graphic Writing and Other Narratives of the Sign (Philadelphia, PA:
Temple Univ. Press, 2013), 31.
 Wyatt MacGaffey, “The Irreducibility of Kongo Min’Kisi” in Art Africa 07 (March 2017): 67.
 Toni Morrison, Beloved (New York, NY: Random House, Inc, 1987), 272.
 Ibid, 274.
 Geoffroy Heimlich, “The Kongo Cross Across Centuries” African Arts 49 (2016): 26-28.
 James Baldwin. "The White Man’s Guilt.” in James Baldwin: Collected Essays (New York: Library of
America, 1998), 725.
 Morrison, 272.
Baldwin, James. “White Man’s Guilt” in James Baldwin: Collected Essays. New York: Library of America,
Heimlich, Geoffroy. “The Kongo Cross Across Centuries.” African Arts, vol. 49, no. 3, 2016, pp. 22–31.,
MacGaffey, Wyatt. “Complexity, Astonishment and Power: The Visual Vocabulary of Kongo
Minkisi.” Journal of Southern African Studies, vol. 14, no. 2, 1988, pp. 188–203,
MacGaffey, Wyatt. “The Irreducibility of Kongo Min’Kisi” Art Africa no. 07, 2017.
Martinez-Ruiz, Barbaro. Kongo Graphic Writing and Other Narratives of the Sign. Temple University Press,
Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York, NY: Random House, Inc, 1987.