Democratic Republic of the Congo

The Kwango River area (southwest of the Democratic Republic of the Congo) is the home of some 300,000 highly artistic Yaka people. Yaka or yakala means “males,” “the strong ones,” thus Bayaka, “the strong people.” The Yaka society is organized into strong lineage group headed by elders and lineage headmen. The chief of the lineage had the power of life and death over lineage members. He was in charge of the cult of the ancestors and judiciary authority, and it was compulsory that he have large number of descendants. Chiefs, including dependent village chiefs, regional overlords, and paramount chiefs, are believed to have extra-human abilities, ruling the underworld or spiritual realm as well as the ordinary world. A chief participates in the affairs of witches so that he can tap their power for the good of the community. On the periphery of the hierarchy, the “master of the earth” plays an important role during the rites that accompany the hunt – the primary activity of the men. The Yaka hunters perform a specific ritual under the direction of the “master of the earth” to guarantee that they procure game. The Yaka have an initiation, the n-khanda. A special hut is built in the forest to give shelter to the postulants during their retreat; the event ends in circumcision, an occasion for great masked festivities including dances and songs. The n-khanda is organized every time there are enough eligible youths between ten and fifteen years of age.

The arts of the Yaka people are very much alive today. The statues that contain magic ingredients, the biteki (nkisi), are multi-functional and sometimes have contradictory roles, for example, they were used to heal and to cause illness. The medications are placed in the figure’s abdomen, which is closed up with a resin stopper, or enclosed in small bags hung around the neck or waist. All nkisi figures are manipulated by a diviner to activate a force which can either inflict illness or protect one’s clan from illness or harm, depending upon the particular set of circumstances. The diviner has an important position in Yaka society because he owns and activates powerful objects, including some masks, that can protect or harm.

The Yaka also have statues of chiefs which are not, however, portraits. These emphasize his authority by representing the chief, his many wives, his children, and his servants, gather together in the same shelter.  Large, life-size carved figures stand at the entrances of Yaka initiation huts, the inside walls of which are covered with painted bark panels. The torso is highly developed; missing extremities allude to an accident that befell a hero.  The phuungu, a statuette of some 6” belongs to the chief of the patrilinear lineage. The torso is wrapped in magic ingredients and has an almost spherical shape; often hooked onto the roof of the hut, it receives libations of blood that activate its power.

The masks are commonly used. The eastern Yaka mask is called kakunga (“the chief”) and is considered one of the important masks in the circumcision ceremony. Other Yaka masks are widely varied in style, although most of them are polychrome. The nkisi masks have a long, exaggerated upward-hooked nose, open mouth. Many masks and figures are remarkable by the turned-up nose. This is a strange but common detail, and there is no decisive explanation for this nose. One source supposes that it is an allusion to the elephant's trunk. A long handle under the chin was held by the dancer. The mask is generally surmounted by a richly ornamented, abstract construction – sometimes resembling a Thailand pagoda; sometimes in animal shapes, made of twigs, covered with fiber cloth, and finally painted.  A variant is the broad-nosed polychrome mask, with round, protruding eyes and square, block-like ears. These two types of masks were used in initiation ceremonies of the mukanda or nkanda societies. At the conclusion of the initiation, the masks were held in front of the faces of the dancers. There are also animal masks. The masks fulfill several functions: some serve as protection against evil forces, others ensure the fertility of the young initiate. Their role consists in frightening the public, healing the sick, and casting spells. The kholuka mask dances alone at the end of celebrations. Very popular, featuring globular or tubular eyes, a protuberant or snub nose, and an open mouth showing its teeth, it sometimes has a hairdo of branches covered with raffia. All refer to the power of the elders and their predecessors, and every element of the mask is the plastic translation of a cosmological term. The colors are those of the rites of passage; the serpent motif symbolizes the rainbow and the moon.  After undergoing various trials in more or less secret camps, the initiates appear in the village, dancing and wearing masks prepared for this purpose.

The Yaka use a narrow cylindrical wooden slit-drum with a carved head for divination purposes. Sometimes the head is Janus form. This instrument, the main insignia of the diviner, is the focus of a complex system of ritual institutions concerned with hereditary curses and curing. The slit-drum functions in a variety of contexts.  It is used as a container for preparing and serving divinatory medicines, but it is also beaten at the funeral of a diviner.

The Yaka give an aesthetic touch to many everyday objects such as stools, combs, pipes, headrests, and musical instruments.

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