The conceptual dichotomy of civilization and the wilderness in African systems of thought w.r.t. Mande art and Kongo minkisi

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Discuss the conceptual dichotomy of civilization and the wilderness in African systems of thought, and the significance of civilization and/or wilderness for Mande art and artistic practice. Discuss Kongo views of supernatural power, and the embodiment of this power in the ‘personhood’ of Kongo minkisi.

Anderson and Kreamer capture the essence of the African idea of the wilderness in their article titled Wild Spirits: Strong Medicine, African Art and the Wilderness. They identify the Kponyugo masquerade as one essential artifact representing the idea o the wilderness. Practiced by the Senufo community in Ivory Coast, the masquerade is quite a spectacle that accompanies annual ceremonies or special occasions. It is a melange of composite features, snarling snout, projecting horns and tusks, etc, which epitomize the dangers of life in the African ‘bush’. It is equally a statement on the perceived tranquility and safety of the village communal life. Moreover, the wilderness and its conquest is a rite of passage for tribesmen. The Senufo men, for example, treat the negotiation of the wild as part of their masculinity. The masquerade, which is an artwork of high quality, can be admired for its own intrinsic beauty, as well as the social connotations. The men who wear it acknowledge the fear invoked by the wilderness. At the same time they seek to avail of the mystical powers it offers through their valor.

More importantly, wilderness has served as a catalyst for art and thought in the region. African oral traditions have preserved the glories, mysteries and hazards posed by the wilderness. African systems of thought have been captured in their art, in their language as well as in rites and rituals. Sculpture, in particular, has proved to be a medium most conducive to capturing images of the wilderness. The surviving paraphernalia related to hunting and healing are testament to this, just as leadership regalia are. The particular features of the masquerades invoke a sense of awe and fear of the wild. Features of carnivorous animals such as canine tooth, claws, and gaping mouth are abstracted into the artwork of the masquerade. But masks are just one piece of apparel. They are complimented with matching paraphernalia in the form of bulky fiber clothing which are adorned with seed pods, porcupine quills and bits of metal.

Anderson and Kreamer go on to explain how the mode of living is a key determinant of how the wilderness is perceived. There is no homogenous way of life in African societies. Usually, the mode of social organization depended on the most suited method of subsistence and adaptation to local climate and ecology. So, for instance, those communities who were able to harness the local ecology to practice agriculture lived in fixed settlements. On the other hand, communities depending on a hunter-gatherer way of subsistence had a nomadic existence. The meaning and outlook on wilderness is contrasted for these two modes of living. Fixed settlers, who represent the civilized, saw the wilderness as dangerous and yet alluring, magical and potent. For the nomads who are most intertwined with it, the wilderness is part of nature and is equated to the divine. Since oral and artistic traditions flourished most commonly among fixed settlements, it is only their perception of wilderness which has come to us through recorded history. Hence despite lopsided evidence as to what the wilderness actually meant, it is fair to claim that there was diversity of belief in how it was treated.

It would be too simplistic to understand the dichotomy between wilderness and civilization as merely one of nature and culture. It is certainly not the case in African systems of thought, including that of Mande. In this sense, the European philosophical understanding of nature as that deriving from ‘natural law’ would not apply to analyzing Mande art and culture. We could extend the same observation to the dresses worn by Mande warriors as they enact the dichotomies of wilderness and civilization in ritualized ceremonies. More metaphors are interpreted in the artful design of Mande dresses. For example, they stand for the Mande concept of ‘jayan’, which means clarity and precision. The Mande warrior costumes also represent the concept of ‘dibi’ which captures the darkness and danger of the night. The Mande costumes have thus come to signify ultimate power, arcane knowledge and great distinction for those wearing them. Although today, the idea of living as one with the wilderness is merely nostalgic as the Mande have integrated into urban areas.

In ancient Congolese culture, supernatural power was believed to be contained in the Minkisi. A miniature statue of the human form with nails pierced into the torso and limbs, the Minkisi is revered as the connection to the supernatural world. The nails symbolize a ‘pact’ with the powers of the other world, whereby its human appellants are offered protection and grace. In this sense there are similarities between the biblical understanding of the Cross and crucifixion and the Minkisi.


Enid Schildkrout, Ife Art in West Africa: An Introduction to the Exhibition – Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria

Kathy Curnow, Alien or Accepted: African Perspectives on the Western ‘Other’ in 15th and 16th Century Art

Martha G. Anderson, Christine Mullen Kreamer, Wild Spirits: Strong Medicine, African Art and the Wilderness

Patrick R. McNaughton, The Shirts That Mande Hunters Wear

Barbara E. Frank, More Than Wives and Mothers: The Artistry of Mande Potters

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