Spirit Embodiments

By Barbara Thompson
Friends of Usambara Society, Tanzania (formerly Stanford University; University of Iowa)

Democratic Republic of the Congo; Ngbaka (Bwaka, Bouaka, Gbaya, M'Baka) peoples

Figure

Wood

H. 45.72 cm (18")

The University of Iowa Museum of Art, The Stanley Collection, X1986.592

The importance of primordial beings and culture heroes in Africa, as elsewhere in the world, is often expressed in storytelling, mythology, and oral literature. However, such charismatic beings are also given tangible form through the visual arts. The Ngbaka peoples carve wooden figures to represent their primordial creators, Setu and his sister Nabo, whose incestuous acts produced the first Ngbaka. Although these protective power figures are kept in the owner’s house, they are taken out in the mornings, placed on an altar, and given offerings as a means of supplicating the supernatural powers they embody. Having received supplication, Setu and Nabo provide their descendants with blessings and protect the figure's owner and his family from illness, death, unlucky hunts, and bad harvests. In the case of illness, a medicinal powder is sprinkled on the figure and the patient. Through the medium of the carved figures, prayers are offered to creator beings who have the power to remove the affliction.