African Voices title image


These themes examine the diversity, dynamism, and the global influence of Africa's peoples and cultures over time in the realms of family, work, community, and the natural environment. Objects both historical and contemporary from the Museum's collections tell evocative stories. Throughout, Africans comment on their history and culture through selections from contemporary interviews, literature, proverbs, prayers, folk tales, songs, and oral epics.

Today as in the past, African peoples create wealth through the exchange of goods and ideas. Wealth takes various forms: money, knowledge, and connections between people. Many Africans highly value wealth in people—the loyalties of family members, clients, and patrons that ensure hard times are weathered, good times shared, and accomplishments honored. In this section discover African wealth of many kinds.

How is Wealth Created

The exchange of objects - beautiful, useful and sacred - creates a wealth of relationships. These exchanges mark changes in status and honor the ties between people.

From Student to Professional

In universities across Africa, as elsewhere, diplomas are a mark of educational achievement. This gown (Figure 2) is from Ghana’s premier institution of higher learning, the University of Ghana at Legon. The gown’s colorful kente cloth border connects the proud graduate with the richness of Ghana’s cultural heritage.

Image of Chancellor of the University of Fort Hare and musician Miriam Makeba

Figure 1. The Chancellor of the University of Fort Hare, Dr. Govan Mbeki recognizes musician Miriam Makeba for her political and cultural contributions to South Africa.

Courtesy of the University of Fort Hare, South Africa

Red cloth graduation gown

Figure 2. The gown and hood are based on British styles; the colorful kente cloth celebrates a distinctive element of Ghana's culture.

University of Ghana, Legon
1997 Cotton, wool

From Girl to Woman

The Sande mask’s high forehead, elegantly braided hair, and delicate features express the physical strength and inner beauty of a mature Mende woman. The mask is danced during coming-of-age ceremonies for adolescent girls. Women’s Sande societies in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea conduct these ceremonies initiating girls into womanhood.

Woman dancing in sande mask

Figure 1. Dances with a Sande mask, representing a water-spirit, are one of the few instances when African women wear wooden masks in ceremony.

© Ruth Phillips, 1972

Image of Sande mask

Mende people Sierra Leone, mid 20th century
Wood, raffia

Figure 2. This mask symbolizes ideals of female beauty and moral character that are imparted to Mende girls

Gift of Phillip Abrams

From Sister to Sister

Historically, female relatives of a Tunisian bride gave her a wedding tunic and headdress, hand-embroidered with threads of silver and gold. The gift marked her new status as a married woman and proclaimed her wealth. Inspired by 17th-century styles in Spain, the headdress also demonstrated the young bride’s cosmopolitan outlook.

Painting of Tunisian woman

Figure 1. If a married Tunisian woman fell on hard times, she could unravel and sell the precious metal threads woven into her wedding clothes.

© M. Daguebert/Centre des Arts et Traditions Populaires, Tunisia

Image of Tunic and Headdress

Andlus people Raf Raf, Tunisia, mid 20th century

Figure 2. The bride wears this costume when the marriage contract is read and when she moves to her Husband’s house.

Gift of Dr. Gordon D. Gibson

Rich Farewell

Even in mourning, there is cause to celebrate a life well lived

Rich Farewell

For Ga people in Ghana, well-attended funerals demonstrate the rich relationships that the deceased established over a lifetime—his or her great wealth in people. Those who in life served their communities, in death become ancestors honored and remembered on a daily basis. The journey to join the ancestors begins as mourners carry the coffin through town, affording the deceased and friends a final chance to bid farewell.

Picture of people mourning over a bird-like coffin

Figure 1. Mourners stop to call out praises to the deceased and pour libations of schnapps on his coffin.

©Carol Beckwith/Angela Fisher, 1994

Meet Master Carpenter Paa Joe

"I’m an artist. I am always busy with my work," says Paa Joe. He began working at age 15 as a carpenter’s apprentice to his cousin Kane Quaye, who created designer coffins. Later, Paa Joe founded his own workshop serving local people and producing designer coffins as art works for museums around the world. His work has been featured in documentary films and books.

This airplane coffin confers the deceased with all the prestige and mystique of travel and proclaims the family’s prominence and wealth. It connects the spiritual

Although rectangular coffins are the norm, designer coffins are becoming more common in Ga communities. Coffins in the shapes of vehicles, animals, farm produce, and Bibles celebrate the accomplishments of the deceased.

A few specialized workshops produce these coffins for local and international clienteles. Paa Joe’s workshop in Nungua, Ghana, made this airplane coffin.

Photo of Paa Joe working on fish coffin

Figure 1. Paa Joe applies the last strokes of paint on a fish coffin in his workshop in Nungua, Ghana.

© Carol Beckwith/Angela Fisher, 1994

Image of Sande mask

Artist: Paa Joe
Nungua, Ghana, 1997
Wood, enamel paint, satin, foil wrapping paper

Figure 2. Paa Joe follows his artistic intuition in detailing designer coffins. He used Christmas wrapping paper in the windows of this KLM 747 jumbo jet.

Malian Mud Cloth

From the Malian village of Kolokani to Paris fashion runways, to the walls of international art galleries, mud dyed cloth called bògòlanfini is reaching the world. Originated by the women of Mali's Bamana culture centuries ago, contemporary hand dyed cloth speaks of many types of wealth: cultural and environmental knowledge; money earned in sales; and human connections formed as the cloth moves from local to international markets.

Meet Nakunte Diarra, a textile artist

"There has always been bògòlanfini in the world.... This is history."
Textile artist Nakunte Diarra, Kolokani, Mali, 1992

Since the 1950s, Nakunte Diarra has made her own mud dyed cloth in her hometown of Kolokani, Mali. She learned her craft from her grandmother and mother and has in turn passed this knowledge on to her son, her granddaughter, and the many students who search her out. Now the world comes to Nakunte, with clients from around the world seeking out her gifted creations.

For centuries, Bamana women and men have used bògòlanfini to mark major life transitions. The cloth’s traditional patterns refer to Bamana culture and history. While Nakunte uses many of the old symbols, she also juxtaposes old and new patterns in unexpected ways. She calls the old patterns Bamana expressing the cloth’s deep roots in her culture. She calls her new patterns Mali because they have been developed since Mali won its independence in 1960.

Picture of Nakunte Diarra

Figure 1. Nakunte Diarra applies the first layer of mud to her cloth.

©Tavy D. Aherne, 1992

Picture of mudcloth with zig-zag patterns

Figure 2. A women’s wrap skirt or tafé made by Nakunte Diarra in 1992.

Meet Cris Seydou, a fashion designer

At age 16, Chris Seydou was sewing in the tailor shops of Mali; at 26, he was designing clothing in Paris; at 39, he returned home.

Seydou embraced Malian mud cloth as part of his heritage and delighted in its graphic quality. He simplified older patterns and tailored the cloth into Western style garments that reflected the urban lifestyle Seydou loved.

"I make all kinds of bògòlanfini, from many materials, because I work in a different technical dimension than its originators."
Chris Seydou, Bamako, Mali, 1992

In 1993, Seydou founded the African Federation of Fashion Creators. After Seydou's death in 1994, designer Yves St. Laurent recalled his friend as the "hope of African clothes design." That hope lives on with each succeeding generation of African fashion designers.

Photo of Chris Seydou

Figure 1. Chris Seydou (1949 1994).
©Revue Noire #13, 1994

Photo of runway model wearing chris seydou mudcloth

Figure 2. Chris Seydou’s fashion show in Dakar, Senegal in 1992.
©Victoria Rovine, 1992

Meet Ismaël Diabaté

"I use bògòlanfini to draw Malians back into their own bring something new to international contemporary art."
Ismaël Diabaté, Bamako, Mali, 1992

Ismaël Diabaté’s paintings have helped transform mud-dyed cloth, a distinctly Malian medium, into an internationally recognized art form. In 1981 he began using this technique and considered it part of cultural revival.

Diabaté’s own work combines mud cloth techniques with other media and styles. He has created herbal and mineral dyes, added colors to the mud cloth palette, and developed new dye application methods, such as spray painting.

Photo of Ismael Diabate

Figure 1. Ismaël Diabaté in his studio in Bamako, Mali.
©Mary Jo Arnoldi/Smithsonian Institution, 1998

Painting by Ismael Diabate

Figure 2. This 1992 painting, titled Si koloma, combines the bògòlanfini technique with an image of a hooked staff, the Bamana symbol for the creation of the Earth. This symbol is associated with the Ntomo association whose membership consisted of young boys in the process of learning adult responsibilities.

Goods are available in abundance — and easy to find at Makola market. Stalls that sell the same type of product, such as fish or yams, are located together. Most are owned by women. In hundreds of stores on surrounding streets, men sell appliances and machinery.

Accra’s 17 major markets are essential to the city’s growing population. From 1960 to 1990, the population quadrupled, reaching 1.6 million. Although many city dwellers have small farm plots, most of their goods are trucked in from afar.

As long as people can remember, a market has been standing on the site of the “31 December Makola Market.” The date reflects both Ghana’s history and the economic power of market women.

It harks back to the day in 1981 when Flight Lt. J. J. Rawlings staged a coup and became Ghana’s head of state. He has since been elected and re-elected as president.

It refers to the 31 December Women’s Movement, organized in 1982 to represent women’s economic and political interests.

Meet Yam Vendor Comfort Kwakye

"See to the welfare of the women. If someone is sick, I try to help out. When someone gives birth, I visit."

Comfort Kwakye
Accra, Ghana, 1996

For 34 years, Comfort Kwakye has sold yams, the vegetable mainstay of the Ghanaian diet. Responsible for 64 yam sellers, Comfort is also a member of the 31 December Women’s Movement, which represents women nationally and runs a market child care center.

Several of Comfort’s children are in school. One son attends a technical college; one is an apprentice mechanic; the third attends secondary school. "I take the money from selling yams and put it to their education," she says.

Image of Comfort Kwakye and Yams

Figure 1. Comfort Kwakye

In Ghana, yams are served as the honored “first fruits” in new year and harvest festivals. Many Ghanaians feel they have not properly eaten until they have had yams — roasted, boiled, or pounded into the dish fufu.

Meet Kola Queen Adama Salifu

"In Ghana, selling kola is women’s work."

Adama Salifu
Accra, Ghana, 1996

For 30 years, Adama Salifu and her two sisters have been selling kola, a bitter-tasting nut with an honored place in West African cultures. Adama’s parents were in the kola business, and large family farms still supply produce.

The kola trade has a long history in West Africa. By the 13th century, West African kola nuts were traded in North Africa, where Muslims valued kola as a stimulant and symbol of hospitality. Later, European pharmacists used a caffeine-rich extract to concoct the forerunners of today’s cola drinks.

Image of Adama Salifu and sisters

Figure 1. Adama Salifu and her sisters

As kola queen, Adama collects money from the other sellers and uses it to buy the nut wholesale, which the sellers then retail to customers from near and far. “Because of kola, I meet people from all over Africa,” says Adama’s sister and business partner Mariama.

Meet Housewares Vendor Adjoa Kwakyewa Dwamena

"Imported enamelware comes from Indonesia; the glasses are from Brazil. The frying pans are made in Ghana.."

Adjoa Dwamena
Ghana, 1996

Adjoa Dwamena gauges consumer demand to adjust her international inventory. She sells goods for a range of prices to customers who often travel long distances. "Many come from the village to buy and then return home and sell the goods," she explains.

A married woman with two children, Adjoa began running her father’s housewares shop after she completed secretarial school. She plans to open a second shop in another city.

Image of Adjoa Dwamena and housewares

Figure 1. Adjoa Dwamena

Meet Cloth Vendor Ernestina Quarcoopome

"The newest cloth design is called ‘God knows.’ Young girls always need fashionable things."

Ernestina Quarcoopome
Accra, Ghana, 1996

Customers flock to the cloth stall of Ernestina Quarcoopome and her daughter Marjorie Botchway to see the latest design of Ghana’s classic blue-and-white cloth.

Marjorie uses skills learned during secretarial school to help her mother run the business. The mother-daughter team joined an association of about 100 cloth vendors who contribute monthly to a revolving credit system. Once every two years, each contributor receives 10 million cedis ($5,000 in 1997) from the fund to buy cloth in bulk.

Image of Ernestina Quarcoopome, her daughter, and cloths

Figure 1. Ernestina Quarcoopome and her daughter Marjorie Botchway. Marjorie uses skills learned during secretarial school to help her mother run the business. The mother-daughter team joined an association of about 100 cloth vendors who contribute monthly to a revolving credit system. Once every two years, each contributor receives 10 million cedis ($5,000 in 1997) from the fund to buy cloth in bulk.

Images and words on factory-made textiles offer wry commentary on relationships, economic success, and politics. Popular TV programs also find their way into cloth. Messages on West African fabrics may be in African languages, English, or French.

Image of Bird Cage pattern Cloth

Cloth proverb:
"If you leave, I leave"
Bamako, Mali, 1997
Gift of Craig A. Subler 

A wife admonishes her husband that if he goes out to party at night, so will she.

Image of Royal Cloth

Cloth proverb:
"A royal doesn’t cry"
Accra, Ghana, 1997

Not everyone has the good fortune of being born into royalty, and so one must be prepared for hard times

Image of Bird patterned cloth

Cloth proverb:
"Money flies like a bird"
Accra, Ghana, 1997

Be careful with your money.

Image of braid patterned cloth

Cloth name: Braid 
Accra, Ghana, 1997

This cloth features a fashionable braided hairstyle.

Image of star patterned cloth

Cloth name: A man’s character 
Accra, Ghana, 1997

You have to be very sure of a man’s character if you intend to marry him.

Image of eye patterned cloth

Cloth proverb:
"Jealousy or My co-wife’s eye" 
Bamako, Mali, 1997
Gift of Craig A. Subler 

Jealousy and tension can exist between co-wives in the same household.

Although farming remains the bedrock of most communities, Africans engage in many kinds of work and celebrate its value through ceremony and art. In their work, Africans apply old and new technologies and deep knowledge of the environment. Work—such as herding and mining—in turn transforms the environment, giving rise to new challenges. In this section, discover links between work, environment, and culture.

Innovators on the Land

Across Africa today, millions of people produce their daily food, sell the surplus to cities, and grow crops for export. They celebrate this work - so essential to life - in ceremony and art.

Masquerades Celebrate the First Farmer

Bamana people in Mali mark the first rains with a ceremony that honors ci wara, the mythic animal ancestor who taught them how to farm.

Women sing as two men dance, wearing headdresses that resemble roan antelopes and embody the ideal qualities of a farmer: strength, tenacity, and grace. The dancers call on ci wara to bless the harvest.

In recent times, the ci wara headdress has become a powerful symbol for Bamana ethnic identity and for the nation of Mali itself.

Photo of dancing Bamana farmers

Figure 1. Eliot Elisofon, 1971, National Museum of African Art

Meet Master Sculptor Siriman Fane

A Bamana artist from Mali, Siriman Fane carved many ci wara headdresses. He spent his career making masks and puppets, along with farm and household tools. Active until his death in 1983, Siriman was acclaimed for his blacksmithing and carving. Many generations of men in his family taught their sons and nephews these crafts.

Image of Kamakanga forge and blacksmith

Figure 1. Siriman Fane and his son, Adama.

© Mary Jo Arnoldi, Smithsonian Institution, 1980

Image of small metal sculpture guardian

Carver: Siriman Fane Koke, Mali, 1970 Wood

Figure 2. The male is bigger and sports an elaborate mane. The female carries a baby on her back.

Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Pascal James Imperato

Working Metal

Men and Metal

For 2,500 years, Africans have shaped metals into tools for farming and hunting, emblems of wealth and authority, protective talismans, and burial offerings.

During most of that time, iron was the king of metals. Today, Africa’s industrial mines yield over 60 metals and other minerals, contributing significantly to African economies.

Most African metalworkers are men. Skilled craftsmen, they are esteemed for their knowledge of ores and fuels and for their technical command of complex physical processes.

In the past, many Africans viewed smelting as a powerful act of creation. The smelter controlled the fire’s intense heat to transform ore into useful metals, an act that was likened to human fertility and birth.

Although industrial processes have replaced the smelter, modern smiths still work metals to provide essential goods.

Image of Kamakanga forge and blacksmith

Figure 1. Using a piece of railroad track as an anvil, a blacksmith hammers out a tool at the Kamakanga forge in Congo.

© Terry Childs, 1988

Image of small metal sculpture guardian

Figure 2. Kota people, Gabon and Republic of Congo, late 19th century
Wood, copper, brass.

Brass- and copper- covered guardian figures were inserted into bark containers holding the bones of revered ancestors.

Herbert Ward Collection

Creative Recycling

Modern metal workers carry on the blacksmith’s legacy. Some work in heavy industry, while others rework scrap metals. Car parts, copper wiring, and food tins find new lives as machine parts, oil lamps, and farm tools.

Adama Traore used to farm during the rainy season and repair tools during the dry season. “I moved to Bamako to try to make a better living,” he said. “Along with my partner, I make about 10 trunks a week.” Their trunks can be found in homes and stores around Bamako.

For many Africans, recycling is a way of life that conserves limited resources and helps the environment.

Photo of Metalworker Adama Traore

Figure 1. Metalworker Adama Traore in his Bamako workshop.

© Mary Jo Arnoldi, Smithsonian Institution, 1997

Image of Patterned Box

Artisan: Adama Traore
Barnako, Mali, 1997
Steel, enamel paints

Figure 2. Adama Traore hammers oil drums flat and shapes them into trunks. Colorful stenciled patterns add pizzazz.

Working Clay

While plastic and metal bowls can be found in many African kitchens, the handmade ceramic pot remains a common household good. Its technology has stood the test of time, as evidenced by 10,000-year-old pot shards uncovered in the Sahara Desert.

Today, most pots are still made by women who cooperatively dig the clay, fire, and sell their pots. They use local resources to produce pots that serve life’s essentials: cooking, storage, and transport of food and drink.

Pots—with their bellies and necks—are frequently compared to the female body. A pot’s decorations often evoke scarification marks that adorn the body. Making and firing pots can be likened to fertility and birth, as women transform the raw materials of the earth into fully formed pots.

Photo of Pottery market and women

Figure 1. Women sell their wares at the Kangaba pottery market in Mali.

© Barbara E. Frank, 1992

Ladi Kwali Nigerian Potter

When Ladi Kwali was a child, she began making pots with her aunt. Today, her elegant water jars grace collections around the world.

Early in her career, Ladi mastered hand-built pottery, in which the potter circles the pot, adding clay coils by hand. Later, in the Abuja Pottery Training Centre, she worked with stoneware, a clay that can be glazed and that appealed to the export market.

Working from the Gwari tradition, Ladi Kwali created pottery that kept the basic shapes and design of traditional Gwari pots while adapting them for new uses. She flattened the bottoms so they would not fall over and she used glazes that added strength and high gloss

Photo of Ladi Kwali holding Pot

Figure 1. Master potter Ladi Kwali in Suleija, Nigeria.

© Maude Southwell Wahlman, 1972

Image of water pot

Figure 2.

Artisan: Ladi Kwali
Abuja Pottery Training Centre, Nigeria
early 1960s
Clay, glaze

African living spaces are far more than shelter: They affirm the foundations of family and community. Places of history, warmth, and beauty, they create connections among people and generations, even in times of rapid change. In this section, discover the many uses of private and public spaces.

Zanzibar's Stone Houses

Doors to a Private World

Buildings made of coral stone connect Zanzibar to an ancient legacy of Swahili stone cities along East Africa’s coast. By the 1800s, the island was the “capital of an Afro-Arab dynasty...a gateway to Africa. Through its portals passed not only slaves, spices, and ivory, but also missionaries, explorers and conquerors,” explains Zanzibar historian Abdul Shariff.

Zanzibar’s impressive stone houses were made from coral stone cut into bricks. Wealthy merchants erected Stone Town in the 1800s, and although much has changed, owning a stone house remains a sign of prestige. Less affluent people lived outside Stone Town, in wooden or mud-walled houses with grass or palm-leaf roofs. Today, Stone Town is part of the modern city of Zanzibar.

Monumental stone walls guard family privacy, while massive doors signify the owners’ wealth.

Doorways, historically the first part of a stone house to be erected, lead to interior courtyards and intimate rooms. Outside the house, narrow lanes lead to main streets that converge at public plazas.

Photo of Stone Town

Figure 1. Stone Town architecture reflects historic African, Arabic, and Indian influences.

© Thomas Hoepker/Magnum Photos, 1997

A Carver's Legacy

Born on the island of Lamu, Kenya, Ali Helewa carved these doors sometime before 1900 in the classic Zanzibar style. Across the top, he engraved a proverb chosen by the door’s owner.

Ali’s father, Kijuma, a Swahili poet and carver, nicknamed his son Helewa, which means to understand, because the child was clever and quick to learn.

Photo of Stone Town

Figure 1. Some 200 doors on houses in Stone Town have been identified for historic preservation.

© Christopher Pillitz/Matrix, 1996

Image of Wooden door

Figure 2.

Artist: Ali Mohammed Helewa
Island of Zanzibar, Tanzania, late 19th century
Wood, brass

Brass studs and intricate hinges decorate the carved doors of Zanzibar.

Gift of William F. Webb

Dances In a Sacred Space

Ceremonial Dance

At the edge of a Chewa village in Malawi is a clearing—a center of community life in times of celebration and of mourning.

During funerals, these spaces become crossroads between village and graveyard as animal masks perform ritual dances.

The final dance of the antelope mask, called Kasiyamaliro, or “Let’s Stop the Funeral,” signals the return of well-being to the community as the deceased’s spirit enters the world of the ancestors.

Photo Cerermonial Dancers

Figure 1. The Nyau men's society hosts a ceremonial dance in a Chewa village plaza. Their masks depict deceased members of the community.

© Laurel Birch de Aguilar, 1985

Photo of Corn Husk Mask

Chewa people
Malawi, 1985
Corn husks, cane armature

Figure 2. Kasiyamaliro Corn husk masks are regularly burned at the end of ceremonies, but elders gave their permission for this mask to be taken from the village.

© Gift of Laurel Birch de Aguilar and Scott Faulkner

Mask of Many Meanings

Students in Malawi wrote essays about Kasiyamaliro, the antelope mask, its ceremonial dances, and Nyau, the Chewa men’s society that conducts young boys’ initiation rites and is associated with the mask.Here are excerpts from the students’ essays:

"Boys under 11 years must be sent to Nyau where they learn traditional customs of their forefathers," student Mackson Msokera explains. Through the rites, men help adolescents mature into responsible adults, both accountable to and active in their local communities.

"When there is death, the burial ceremony is done by Gule Wamkulu [masqueraders]. This dance is for spirits." Jephter Banda

"I feel and believe the Kasiyamaliro is a kind of transfigured ancestral spirit as it is said by the elders of the dance" Matthews Msatsi

"The mask brings out trouble, danger, and happiness among the people." Mackson Msokera

"Nyau dance is deteriorating since people are forsaking their culture, which is not good at all!" Jimmi Njirisi

"When I see this mask I feel happy that my tribe ‘CHEWA’ is existing, since each tribe is best known by its culture." Postani Kawala

Photo of Chewa village people

Figure 1. The antelope mask, Kasiyamaliro, is danced in a Chewa village in Malawi

Photo of Students

Figure 2. Students pose in front of their secondary school in Mporela, Malawi

© Adam Michaelides, 1998

Kongo people of Central Africa consider life a process shared with the ancestors, spirits, and a Supreme God. Since 1491, they have added Christian teachings to these beliefs. Symbols that invoke the sun's journey across the sky enable Kongo people to open portals to the invisible world and call on their ancestors for guidance. Enslaved Kongo people carried their beliefs to the Americas, where enduring respect for the ancestors sustained them through adversity. In this section, learn about Kongo beliefs in Africa and the Americas.

Worlds Meet at the Crossroads

To invoke their ancestors, Kongo people may go to an actual crossroads like a river, where water meets earth, or draw a dikenga, a symbolic crossroads. The circle pierced by a cross represents the physical boundary where living people and ancestors meet. Other boundaries, such as the horizon, can represent similar junctures of the material and spiritual worlds. As enslaved Kongo people were taken to the Americas, they brought with them their spiritual beliefs and symbols. These dikenga designs appear in religious art in Africa and the Americas.

Dikengas of the Nations of Cuba, Brazil, and Kongo

Figure 1. Dikengas from Brazil, Congo, Cuba.

Calling Upon Ancestors

Kongo graves are an intimate point of contact with the spirits of the dead. Personal gifts and statues, such as these wooden figures, are left at the graves of ancestors—those who persevered in life and who in death can lend strength to their descendants.

African American communities sometimes mark graves in ways similar to Kongo people—with sea shells, pottery, glassware, lanterns, and clocks. “You put all the things they used last like dishes and the medicine bottle. The spirits need these same as a man. Then the spirit rests and doesn’t wander about,” Ben Washington, Eulonia, Georgia, 1940.

Photo of wooden figures in shrine

Figure 1. Wooden figures mark an early 20th- century Kongo shrine near the mouth of the Congo River.

Photo of wooden gravemarker sculptures

Kongo people, Boma, Congo, Late 19th century
Wood, natural pigment

Figure 2. The elegant hair styles, jewelry, and body markings of these grave markers underscore the worldly authority of the deceased.

Herbert Ward Collection

African American communities sometimes mark graves in ways similar to Kongo people—with sea shells, pottery, glassware, lanterns, and clocks. "You put all the things they used last like dishes and the medicine bottle. The spirits need these same as a man. Then the spirit rests and doesn’t wander about," Ben Washington, Eulonia, Georgia, 1940.

Photo of decorated grave in south carolina

Figure 3. Shells cover this grave in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina.

© John Vlach, 1976

Summoning the Spirits

To enlist the aid of spiritual powers, Kongo people craft objects called minkisi. Priests affix medicines that bestow these objects with power. Priests direct minkisi to assist people—whatever their needs may be. In the early 1900s, Kongo author Nsemi Isaki described minkisi as “a hiding place for people’s souls, to keep and compose in order to preserve life.”

Photo of Kongo Priest

Figure 1. The mirrored eyes of minkisis and the white chalk around a priest's eyes heighten spiritual vision. White markings enable this Kongo priest to see the invisible world.

© J. Hammar, The National Museum of Ethnography, Stockholm, Sweden, 1912

Photo of minkisis

Figure 2. Minkisi. Herbert Ward Collection (Male figure).
Gift of Lucille W. Puleston (Mother and child figure).

Adapting Christianity

After 1509, Kongo King Afonso I worked to institutionalize Catholicism. As in other parts of the continent, the meeting of indigenous and world religions led to conflict, coexistence, and change. As Catholic priests competed for authority with priests of local religions, Christianity came to be practiced as an evolving synthesis of local practices and church doctrine. Kongo people who adopted Christianity applied key terms from the local religion. For example, the word minkisi—objects containing a powerful spirit—was used for “holy.” Today the majority of Kongo people are Christian.

Drawing of Garcia 2nd king of Kongo

Figure 1. Garcia II, the King of Kongo, surrounded by Christian symbols, receives Portuguese visitors in 1650.

Library of Congress

Photo of Metal Cross

Kongo people
Republic of Congo and Congo
18th -19th century

Figure 2. Non-Christians appropriated this central emblem of the Christian faith as a symbol of chiefly power.

Gift of Ernst Anspach

Journey of the Sun and the Soul

According to Kongo beliefs, the sun’s journey mirrors that of the soul through birth, maturity, death, and rebirth. This belief followed the Kongo people to Brazil—where more than one-in-three enslaved Africans were taken during the Atlantic slave trade. In artworks like this Brazilian caboclo sculpture, Brazilians illustrated the journey of the soul and the sun. Each point in the sculpture marks a moment in the sun’s journey across the sky as it rises, peaks, sets, and returns to the underworld, paralleling the journey of the soul.

Photo of Afro-Brazilian man wearing feather headdress and feather tunic

Figure 1. Afro-Brazilian religions honor the owners of the land, represented by this Brazilian Indian forest spirit.

© Phyllis Galembo, 1987

Photo metal caboclo representing the sun and life

Artist: José Adário dos Santos
Bahia, Brazil, 1996

Figure 2. Prayers may be offered to the caboclo-a Brazilian Indian spirit represented by this sculpture.