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Tell Us About the Kongo Bell

Bryna Freyer

Collections Curator Bryna Freyer tells us the history of the spirit hunter with one of her favorite works in the African Art Museum Collections, the Kongo Bell.

Collection Object: 
Bell
Topic
Power
male
Object Name
dibu
Data Source
National Museum of African Art
Maker
Kongo artist
Credit Line
Gift of Lawrence Gussman in memory of Dr. Albert Schweitzer
Medium
Wood, stone
Dimensions
H x W x D: 21.8 x 12 x 10.5 cm (8 9/16 x 4 3/4 x 4 1/8 in.)
See more items in
National Museum of African Art Collection
Geography
Democratic Republic of the Congo
Date
Late 19th-early 20th century
Label Text
Ordinary bells are associated with hunting. Because Kongo hunting dogs cannot bark, they are located by their bells. A different type of hunter is the specialist (nganga) concerned with tracing spiritual forces using an elaborately carved bell. A diviner or healer would use a bell like this one in his invocations summoning the spirits to heal or seek justice. The focus of the nganga's power was an nkisi, a container that is sometimes a figure, which holds the materials that activate spiritual forces that aid the nganga.
In public performances, the nganga would wear a striking costume, jewelry and regalia and would dance to music from whistles, gongs, rattles and bells. The bells' sound came from the action of projecting wood clappers, which are missing from the bell shown here.
This bell's handle, a figure carved in a seated position, conveyed a message for those immersed in Kongo ritual culture. While today the exact significance of the combination of turned head, upraised knees and crossed arms is uncertain, one meaning of the arm gesture is clear: "I have no more to say."
Description
Round wood bell with convex sides, 3 holes on the bottom, a stone rattle inside, topped by a seated figure of a man with arms crossed on his upraised knees.
Provenance
René Van der Straete, Belgium, 1972
Lawrence Gussman, New York, 1972 to 1998
Exhibition History
Earth Matters: Land as Material and Metaphor in the Arts of Africa, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., April 22, 2013-February 23, 2014; Fowler Museum at UCLA, University of California, Los Angeles, April 19-September 14, 2014; Bowdoin College Museum of Art, October 15, 2015-March 9, 2016
A Personal Journey: Central African Art from the Lawrence Gussman Collection, Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase, NY, September 30, 2001-January 13, 2002; Philbrook Museum of Art, Tulsa, OK, February 10-April 7, 2002; National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., September 29, 2001-August 14, 2002
New Acquisitions: Gifts from the Lawrence Gussman Collection, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., December 14, 1998-May 5, 1999
Astonishment and Power, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., April 28, 1993-January 2, 1994
Published References
MacGaffey, Wyatt. 1993. Astonishment and Power. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, p. 57, no. 35.
Milbourne, Karen E. 2013. Earth Matters: Land as Material and Metaphor in the Arts of Africa. New York: The Monacelli Press; Washington, D.C.: National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, p. 112, no. 88.
Robbins, Warren and Nancy I. Nooter. 1989. African Art in American Collections. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, p. 362, no. 941
Type
Musical Instrument
Object number
98-15-9