Kongo Tribe of Africa: African People and Tribes

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Location: Southwestern Congo (Zaire), Angola, Congo in Central Africa

Population: 2 million

Language: KiKongo (central Bantu)

Neighboring Peoples: Vili, Yombe, Bembe

Types of Art: The most prolific art form from this area is the nkisi objects, which come in all shapes, mediums, and sizes. The stratification of Kongo society resulted in much of the art being geared toward those of high status, and the nkisi figures were one of the only forms available to everyone.

History: The Kongo peoples migrated into their current location during the 13th century from the northeast under the leadership of Wene. In 1482 the Portuguese arrived on the African coast, and the Kongo began diplomatic relations which included sending Kongo nobles to visit the royal assemblage in Portugal in 1485. 

Kongo leaders were targeted for conversion by Christian missionaries, and often divisions between followers of Christianity and followers of the traditional religions resulted. In 1526 the Portuguese were expelled, but the Kongo peoples were then invaded by the Jagas in 1568, and the Kongo were forced to look to the Portuguese for help. 

The Kongo kingdom never regained its former power. In the ensuing years the Kongo alternatively fought for and against the Portuguese, eventually being colonized in 1885. The Kongo political party Abako played an important part in national independence in 1960.

Economy: The Kongo people survive from day to day on agricultural production, fishing, and hunting. In its heyday the Kingdom exacted taxes, forced labor, and collected fines from its citizens in order to prosper. At times, enslaved peoples, ivory, and copper were traded to the Europeans on the coast. The important harbors were Sonyo and Pinda.

Political Systems: When the Kongo Kingdom was at its political apex in the 15th and 16th centuries, the King, who had to be a male descendant of Wene, reigned supreme. He was elected by a group of governors, usually the heads of important families and occasionally including Portuguese officials. The activities of the court were supported by an extensive system of civil servants, and the court itself usually consisted of numerous male relatives of the King. The villages were often governed by lesser relatives of the King who were responsible to him. All members of government were invested with their power under the auspices of a ritual specialist.

Religion: Nzambi was the supreme god for all in the Kongo Kingdom, and the intermediary representations included land and sky spirits and ancestor spirits, all of whom were represented in nkisi objects. When an individual encountered hardship and feared that a spirit had been offended, it would be necessary to consult a diviner (nganga), who would often instruct the afflicted to add medicines to certain nkisi in order to achieve well-being. Although the Portuguese attempted to Christianize the Kongo peoples as early as 1485, for the most part people either resisted entirely or incorporated Christian iconography into their own African religions.

Credits:  Christopher D. Roy also see credit page
Professor of the History of Art
The University of Iowa