Angola and Democratic Republic of the Congo

The 5,000 Nkanu people live on the area bordering DRC and Angola and are a part of eastern Kongo people. They are headed by family chiefs, called Fumu Nakanda, who, in turn, report to local chiefs, known as Mfutu Mpu, each of whom controls three to four villages. Like most of the peoples living in this region, Nkanu peoples traditionally observed matrilineal descent, inheritance rites, succession, and residence patterns.

Among Nkanu, men contribute to the local economy largely through hunting. They may hunt either individually or in groups, and most often use bow and arrow, or old rifles. The women contribute primarily through cultivation of cassava, sweet potatoes, beans and peanuts. They further supplement the diet through the gathering of wild fruits and berries and occasional fishing in the nearby rivers. Manioc is the main staple throughout the region, but maize is also very important. Intergroup trade with neighbors in the region play a critical role in Nkanu economics.

They believe in the creator God who inhabits the sky and is responsible for life, death and all unanswerable questions. There are no religious practices, which actively pay homage to this God. Instead, religious celebrations focus on honoring the elders and ancestors. The death of an elder is cause for a public ceremony performed by other elders. Ancestors may be honored by recognizing and practicing the traditional ways and through offerings and gifts. The offering place is usually a clearing in the forest, removed from the everyday interactions of village life. Offerings may otherwise be made at the gravesite of the ancestors.

The Nkanu organize initiation rites for boys and young men. These rites, called nkanda or mukanda, take place over several months at the age of puberty. A dominant theme of the ritual is the symbolic death and rebirth of the individual who begins nkanda as a child and re-enters society at the conclusion of the rite as an adult. Initiates live in a specially constructed enclosure situated outside the community. Physical and psychological changes take place as the initiates are circumcised, acquire specialized knowledge, and learn the skills necessary for adult life.

Sculptors who are also ritual specialists well versed in the esoteric knowledge and symbolic visual language of nkanda arts produce the works. During initiation, the youths observe the creation of masks, figures, and carved panels, most of which are destined for public display at the conclusion of the initiation cycle. Thus, by observation--and perhaps by helping carvers in small tasks--Nkanu initiates learn about the forms, designs, and meanings of initiation arts. An elaborate celebration at the conclusion of nkanda reintroduces the initiates to the community as adults. During this period of intense artistic activity, specialized wood sculptors create wall panels, carved in high relief, with images of men, women, and animals.

The types of artifacts produced by the Nkanu were influenced by the Kongo and the Yaka, but they achieved a distinctive style through the use of applied polychrome pigments. Typical for the Nkanu statues is a circular line around the eyes while their large initiation masks have bulging eyes and inflated cheeks.

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