Post Lot Text
NKUNDU/NGATA ANTHROPOMORPIC SARCOPHAGUS
Democratic Republic of Congo, North-West, Mbandaka region By François Neyt
In the heart of the sub-equatorial forests, we find these intriguing sculptures - rare and of exceptional quality. They themselves embody, through unforgettable signs, a collective imagination about the meaning of life and death. The Nkundu/Ngata sarcophagus, which lived for so long in Willy Mestach's apartment, and astonished more than a few visitors over the years, can be called a masterwork. An enigmatic sculpture, it invites us to discover more from several points of views: from which universe did this carving, with its mysterious beauty, arrive? What is the cultural context in which such an artistic production flourished; and why did it provoked such a surprise in the Occident? What role did the figure play in the political and social history of the region? Art, culture and history will guide us through this investigation; the latter requires a panoramic overview of the Central African traditions.
- From reliquaries to sarcophagus
Ancestor worship is a pervasive practice among Central African peoples, and Bantu speakers carefully guarded their ancestors' skulls and long bones. Since the 18th and 19th centuries, faces and effigies were carved to protect the reputable or dangerous ancestors in Gabon, Brazzaville-Congo and Kinshasa-Congo. The Mbede reliquaries, in northern Congo, were formed by hollowing a tree trunk and giving it human aspects, then the sacred bones were deposited inside, provide a first comparison point with the people of the Mbandaka-region. Indeed, some of these sculptures are carved in such a manner that a container appears in the back, in order to store the human bones, which were probably used during funerary dances. The comparison is noteworthy, and related figures, smaller than the Mestach sarcophagus, exist amongst the Nkundu/Ngata, and require an in-depth study.
Other peoples carved reliquary guardians, such as the Fang, the Tsogo and the Kota, in wood, sometimes with metal - copper, brass, iron. In the middle - and lower-Congo, the Teke gave priority to ancestral worship, while the Congo favored royalty and ritual divination. The Bwende and the Bembe created reliquary effigies with fabric. For the first, after being subject to a drying process by fumigation, the corpse is covered with mats, made out of vegetal fibers and fabric, and subsequently placed in a giant reliquary, a real sarcophagus, which can reach three meters, which is carried during a procession, buried in a deep pit: these are the Niombo. Among the Bembe, the reliquary-figures, about 45cm tall, are made out of fabric and contain some relics: these are the Muzidi. Meanwhile, less elaborate, wooden containers for relics, wrapped with fabric and tied with fibers and cords, also exist and are honored.
Funerary practices differ from one group to another. The more general way remains the burial of the deceased into a mat or a woven basket in which the deceased is wrapped with young palm tree petioles. This custom is practiced by the Nkundu and is known as bombai, directed by the Bonsago association. Another practice was to place the seated deceased in a basket. The notable person or deceased chief could wear a feathered headdress, recalling their social status.(1)
In the Mbandaka region, formerly called Coquilhatville, several wooden sarcophagus types could be found. Some are anthropomorphic, while others reference a double canoe through an assemblage of geometric and stylized zoomorphic designs. Before it is carved, the wood of the anthropomorphic sarcophagus is often anointed with a dog's blood, sacrificed to ward off evil spells from the grave.
- The Nkundu/Ngata anthropomorphic sarcophagus
The present example is unique by its scale, its proportions, its sculptural quality and its decoration. Probably carved from Ricinodendron, a semi-heavy wood, the masculine figure, in a hieratic posture, with highly svelte features, measures a remarkable 254 cm in height. The overall form of the sarcophagus is a rectangular shape with slightly rounded angles; the box designed to contain the deceased's remains is carved in the male figure's back. The use of this masterpiece will be discussed later. Its extremely attenuated features, with consummate skill, recall perspectives of the sculptor, Giacometti. These are accentuated by the face and the beard, the arms hanging along the body and holding in the left hand a curved sword, the stretched sex, falling, the lower limbs in an upright position.
The impressive head, of spherical shape, rests on an angular and massive neck. The face is cut into a heart shape, as is traditional in the forest areas inhabited by Bantu speakers. Perforated eyes, in almond shape (containing a small slice of wood representing the pupil) lie on the concave plane which runs from the base of the nose, along the eyebrows, the cheeks, the mouth, in an oval place, wide open, with twelve wooden teeth, separately carved and implanted. The triangular nose is neatly positioned. The ears, with their curvilinear helix and triangular tragus (surmounted by a slanted element on the right and by a more accentuated antihelix on the left) are prominent, turned slightly forward. The temples are textured by three rows of parallel incisions. Scarifications "in cockscomb", practiced among the northern populations, such as the Ngbaka, are incised on the forehead above the nose. The forehead line is highlighted by two rows of braided cords, running towards the top of the skull in the middle of the forehead. Some traces of black vegetal resin can be found on the smooth skull. Finally, under the rectangular chin a beard is suggested by plaited cords, arranged in a square.
The plane of the shoulders is rounded following the position of the arms falling along the body, parallel to the trunk, also carved in an angular shape. The longitudinal isometry can be found from the shoulders to the decorated line under the hands, and from this point to above the sex, and then to the soles of the feet, following a tripartite division, to which could be added an intermediate element, seen in the height of the head and neck, from the painted areas and the navel, as a reference point. The proportions are indeed following well-defined sequences that punctuate, in a harmonious way, the sculpture and the decoration. Should we continue with descriptive details ? Let's simply note the arms slightly bent backwards, the palms are placed flat and close to the body on the left, while holding a throwing knife in the open right hand. The breasts and the navel are carved as protruding dots, emphasizing the great simplicity of the sculpture, in opposition to the painted surfaces: reddish-brown dye flecked with white spots all over the body with touches of white dye on the thorax and upper abdomen. These surfaces are decorated with white diamond-shaped patterns made out of indigo blue.
The back reveals a rectangular box. At the top, two nails remind us of the missing board which covered the coffin; at the bottom, a rounded slit delineates the lower buttocks. The overall space seems too small to contain the body of the deceased. However, one must consider the practices in use: the drying of the body for several months, recalling the literal meaning of the word sarcophagus- "the one who eats the flesh". The planar limits of the box were broken in order to force the body into the space. The lower limbs fall straight, realistically, with the calves and feet carved naturalistically. A spectacular work of art - the expression of a great master carver!
- The sculpture's workshop and the style
In order to clarify the ethnographic data, let's simply distinguish two carved sarcophagus types:
- Sarcophagi made out of two canoes stacked and decorated with geometric and zoomorphic elements, carved by the Eleku, residing along the river. Indeed, in 1960, G. Hulstaert(2) published a study about anthropomorphic coffins from the Mbandaka region. For the Eleku, the coffins, measuring 310 cm, were in stylized shapes, that could evocate the overall form of a canoe, or a cormorant, or another related bird, and the fins of a fish.(3)
- Anthropomorphic sarcophagi were mainly carved by the Nkundu-Tomba, and some of their subgroups (Lifumba, Bombwanja, Bonkoso, Tomba from the Ingende region, and the Bofidji)(4). The Ngata sculpture is related to the latter type.
The original zone of the anthropomorphic sarcophagi production is undeniably located in among the Nkundu, in the Bikoro region in the Mbandaka territory. The date, given by one of Hulstaert's informants, goes back to the 1880's. The production of these sarcophagi appears to have stopped by the 1940's.(5) They are rare and mainly owned by the Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren. It is exceptional that such a work, one of the most beautiful, is presented by Christie's. If the sarcophagus originates from the Nkundu/Ngata, it could have been realized by an Nkundu carver connected to the Bokongo association.
- Religious practices
These are described in several articles by Father G. Hulstaert and revisited by J. Volper who evokes other possible uses.
- Tradition undoubtedly testifies to the use of anthropomorphic coffins for the funeral of notables; these sarcophagi were called "great efomba". The rituals were precisely described from the death of the man, the required time to treat the corpse, in order to conserve it, and to carve the wood, the public celebration in the village, and the burial, reserved for the association members(6).
- The possibility of human sacrifices, women or slaves, to accompany the deceased in the grave, is also evoked. It is reported that the upper part of the sculpture and the lower limbs were cut and placed into the grave in the arms of two of these victims.
- The sculptor belonged to the Bonganga association, which had its rituals and taboos. The carving took several months and was realized in a protected enclosure, esata.
- Often in Africa, utilitarian objects, such as seats, adzes, spears, knives and many other items, became objects of prestige and no longer met their original function. It is, therefore, not surprising that at some point in the Nkundu history, the sarcophagus was regarded as a status symbol, a memorial figure. Already in 1897, during the international exhibition of the Congo Independent State, Matsui raised this hypothesis, recapitulated by Hulstaert: "There is an anthropomorphic sarcophagus variant, intended to keep the memory of the deceased"(7). Busts and traditional figures are carved also for this same purpose. These depart significantly from the sarcophagus, however. Volper notes that carved figures with hollowed backs as sarcophagi, emumu, appear during Bobongo dances. Maybe we could also establish some parallels with the carved traditions of the Mbede from Gabon who also carved a box in the back of their funerary figures, as noted earlier in this document.
-Published by Mestach, in L'intelligence des formes, 2007, p.183, cat. 067, the sarcophagus, writes the author, evokes the image of the canoe, and the bones of the deceased, after the second funeral, entrusted to the river's water. The collector's idea is derived from Evan Maurer, opus citatus, 1991, p.96 fig.80. However, it does not match the reality of the field notes. The sarcophagus is never carried by the river; it is buried in the soil after the head and lower limbs are fractured.
- Region history and sarcophagus location
On the middle-Congo, in the northern part of Brazzaville-Congo, on the Ubangui outskirts, villages were organized, since the 14th century, to protect themselves from military incursions from the north-east. These are the Ngbandi, non-Bantu speakers, who established the patrilineal-succession rule and gradually constituted the primogenitor principle and a veritable dynasty. In the Uele and Bomu confluence area, kingdoms were raised with Ngbandi rulers.(8) Gradually, around the 17th and 18th centuries, the Ngbandi spread themselves along the Ubangui, imposing their language and culture. The Ngombe, also influenced by the Ngbaka(9), grew stronger by uniting under a common ancestor. Militarized as the Ngbandi, they used throwing knives and spears. But the forces retreated towards the south and west while in the south-east, on the Itimbiri, the Mbuja resisted the Ngbandi. In artistic terms, the Ngbaka, whose languages are related to Cameroonian dialects, created heart-shaped masks. Incisions or scarifications appear on the ridge of the nose, forehead and temples. They also carve anthropomorphic pipes. The Ngbandi and their neighbors also possess ancestor figures, honoring the founders of the dominant lines. For the Budja, as well for the Mongo from the Tshuapa, women, for centuries, have created wonderful pottery. The presence of frontal and temporal scarification links the studied sarcophagus to the Ngbaka and northern nation's traditions. The throwing knife, execution knife, formerly used as a weapon or currency, has become over the years a ceremonial knife worn by community leaders or chiefs. It was manufactured by the blacksmiths, and used throughout the Ubangi region. The sharp edge is outside the curve, unlike the one which is a prestige emblem among the Eastern Bembe, whose sharp edge is inside like a sickle. As for the use of red and white dye, it is related to the rites of passage between life and death. It is clear and vigorously bursts forth on the sarcophagus. The white stripes can also evoke clothing worn on the chest and belly; these could be made of rows of cowrie shells.(10) The lozenge decoration, which can be a fertility sign, referring to the moon united to the earth when the moon is new. Among the Luba, it is also subject to many other interpretations, as well as the spotted decoration that could suggest felines, and the mysterious nature of time at sunset and sunrise.(11) Without going too far, it is indisputable that this anthropomorphic sculpture is highly symbolic and summarizes the Ngata chief's power and authority signs. It provides a historical dimension to our knowledge of this region. Maes locates Ngata sarcophagi at the Ruki River mouth. This river flows into the Congo River in the present town of Mbandaka (formerly Coquilhatville). North of the Ruki, along the banks of the River Congo live the Eleku tribe. At the Ruki River mouth, south side, live some Kundu groups. This is probably the location of the workshop that carved the studied sarcophagus.
- The arrival of the work in Europe and its dating
The sarcophagus of the Mestach collection was acquired in a Brussels antique shop, after the 1940-45 war. It is very likely that this antiquarian is G. Dehondt. The latter sold to the Musée de l'Homme in Paris the Nkundu sarcophagus efomba, now in the Musée du Quai Branly under reference number 73.1992 .0.1. In this connection, Miss Huguette Van Geluwe from the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren wrote to Mrs Delange, in a letter from November 19th 1970, that the sarcophagus came from this well-known antique dealer and has been photographed by R.F. Boelaert in 1940. She added that two other sarcophagi that are in the Tervuren Museum were photographed before 1896 and published in the Annals of the Tervuren Museum.(12) These anthropomorphic sarcophagi, acquired by the Royal Museum for Central Africa, were collected in the late 19th century, presented during the Brussels-Tervuren exhibition of 1897 and offered to the Museum in 1893 after being collected by C. Lemaire in 1891.(13) The Willy Mestach sarcophagus is stylistically and culturally related to this first generation of sculptures, especially the anthropomorphic sarcophagus benchmarked RMCA 42798. The latter, collected by Mr Stasse and offered to the museum by his wife in 1909, presents this morphological correspondence and analog designs (dark dye flecked with white dots). The comparison underlines how the Mestach sarcophagus is by far the most remarkable, almost unique, and of a rare plastic quality. It should be dated between 1890 and 1909.
Other sarcophagi appeared in the 1940's, and, recently, many false ones have circulated in Europe. We must date this sarcophagus from the same period as those of Tervuren, if not in the early 20th century. As Nkundu, from Ntomba group, who resided in the Wangata wa Ibonga village, the sarcophagus was attributed to the Ngata. The sculptor is probably Kundu as very recently suggested by Volper.
(1) The Nkundu Ngata sarcophagi have been studied primarily by Father G. Hulstaert, who lived in the region. From 1937 to 1985, he often wrote on the subject, see: Aequatoria revue. See also: "Funerary Customs of the Nkundo" in Anthropos vol.XXXII, No. 3-4, p. 502-527 and No. 5-6, p.729-742, 1937.
J. VOLPER, "Exquisite vanity. The Nkundu sarcophagi" in Tribal Art, No. 61, 2011, p.108-117, gives a complete list and detailed biography, p. 117.
(2) The anthropomorphic coffins in Aequatoria, No. 4, pp.123-129.
(3) MAESEN Albert, Umbangu, pl. 50, fig.56.27.1
(4) Quoted by Julien VOLPER, "Exquisite vanity. The Nkundu sarcophagi", Tribal Art, No. 61, 2011, p.111 referring to G. Hulstaert, The anthropomorphic coffins, Aequatoria, vol. XXIII, No. 4, 1960, p. 121-129.
(5) According to Bokoko, a Hulstaert informant, quoted by Volper, op. cit., p.111-112.
(6) The sculpture is in the hands of a secret society and of a diviner-priest, the Nganga. The sculptor was rarely in a hurry, and took his time to sculpt while the body was treated to preserve it: the body resting on beams, was placed over a layer of sand in a pit, itself covered with tree bark and earth. Other methods of drying, such as smoke, were used. The ceremony included a procession through the village - singing, crying, putting the body in the coffin by initiates led by the Nganga. At the time of burial, the head and legs were cut, placed on the knees of two sacrificed slaves when it was a male corpse.
(7) HULSTAERT, 1960, p.127 ; VOLPER, 2011, p.112.
(8) Around 1600, VANSINA, 1991, p.148, note 41.
(9) Ibidem p.149, note 46. In the far north, they were influenced by the Ngbaka; the Ngombe from Budjala were customers of the Ngbandi.
(10) GROOTAERS, Umbangi, Art et Cultures au coeur de l'Afrique, Berg-en-Dal, 2007,fig. 6.9, p.269, Manga or Banda woman.
(11) However, this motif evokes the great cormorant or kingfisher on the Eleku sarcophagi.
(12) Volum Les Arts. Les Religions, 1902-1906, p. 180.
(13) MRAC EO.0.0.37340 ; Picture Meunier 1897 (see J. VOLPER, op. cit., p.108 et 109. The dating and attribution of the sarcophagi are discussed by that author. Thus, J. MAES evokes the name of A. Van Gele, who had gathered a sarcophagus in 1882 and donated to the museum before its existence in 1885!
C.COQUILHAT, Sur le haut Congo, Brussels, 1888.
M. LEIRIS and J. DELANGE, Afrique noire. La création plastique, Paris, 1967, p.357, fig.418.
Meubles et décors, Benelux Editions, November 1970.
K.F. SCHAEDLER, Afrikanische Kunst, Munich, 1975, p. 246, fig. 361.
Actualité des Arts, n.3, november 1973, cover.
Fr. NEYT, Arts traditionnels et histoire au Zaïre, Louvain-la-Neuve, 1981, p.25, fig. I.5.
E.M. MAURER, The Intelligence of Forms. An Artist Collects African Art, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 1991, p.96, fig. 80.