Figure 17:
H 12 1/2"


Figure 18:
H 7"


Figure 19:
H 18 1/2"

Another type of ritual artifact found throughout Central Africa is the slit-gong or -drum. Rene Devisch and Arthur P. Bourgeois have written extensively on the rituals and art of the Yaka and Suku peoples of southwestern Zaire. The latter are a relatively small group surrounded by the Yaka whose histories date to the sixteenth century. Figs. 17, 18, and 19 are musical instruments called n-koku or nkookwangoombu (see Marie-Therese Brincaird 1989). During rites of initiation of a diviner, a chorus of slit-gongs will be sounded as the initiate is led through a series of activities that transform her from an ordinary human to a spiritual agent. Also in divination sessions with a family group or an individual, the diviner will strike the gong with intricate rhythms while calling upon spiritual powers or punctuate statements with a single sharp strike upon the instrument. But as Devisch and Bourgeois have argued, they are not only important for the sounds they create when struck by a stick during a ritual. They are visually significant as well (Devisch 1978, 1991, 1995; Bourgeois 1979, 1982).

The essential shape of all Suku and Yaka slit-gongs consists of a long cylindrical body topped by a male head which forms the handle of the gong. Yaka figural sculpture, including face masks, is distinguishable by the upturned nose (fig. 18), otherwise there are often strong similarities, as well as evidence of stylistic influence on both Yaka and Suku sculptures from surrounding peoples, such as the Kongo, Holo, and Hungaan. On both Yaka (figs. 17 and 19) and Suku (fig. 18) slit-gongs the head is enhanced by a hat. In an essay on "Yaka and Suku Leadership Headgear" (1982) Bourgeois calls attention to the fact that diviners (nganga ngombo) are included in the category of "traditional leadership." Although the diviner's headdress "is a modest head covering called lufuku consisting of a strip of squirrel skin worn from the forehead to the back,...most slit-drum carving presents a head bearing crested headgear typical of the bweni bonnet or muhanda hairstyle" (1982:30, 35). Bweni is a symbol of authority among land chiefs: the more important the status, the more elaborate the bonnet. The headgear is thus employed as a symbol of the diviner's status and authority in the society.

Devisch extends the visual significance of the form of the slit-gong by noting the female genital connotation in the opening of the slit-gong into which the phallic drum stick is placed at a slant. The sounds, which accompany and shape the ritual activity, relating the participants to the realm of the spirits, come from the cylindrical chamber which is thought of as female. The white clay interior is also associated with lunar brightness, for divination illuminates the dark (Devisch 1991). Thus, there are multiple levels and an interplay of visual and aural symbolism.

Holo slit-gongs such as Fig. 20 are extremely rare. Only three others are known, and they are in the Musee Royal d'Afrique Centrale, Tervuren, Belgium. The arching eyebrows melding into the gentle curve of the cheeks to the chin is typical of Holo depictions of the face. Unlike the prominent hats which Suku and Yaka carvers place on the heads of their figures, Holo artists prefer the rounded coiffure and skullcap with which to frame the face.


Figure 20:
H 13 1/2"


Figure 21: H 13 1/2"


Figure 22: L 12 1/2"

In the western part of Zaire and into Angola the people of the Kongo created over the centuries some of the most impressive and intriguing visual art in Central Africa. In contrast to the well known nkisi figures with nails driven in the body, medicinal containers with mirrors imbedded in the stomach, and feathers projecting from their heads (see MacGaffey 1993), two slit-drums in the Maurer Collection reveal a sensitivity to formal properties that is equally engaging (figs. 21 and 22). The exquisite curve of the "body" of the slit-gong portion ending in a twisted rope-like handle on one and the tilted human head on the other convey a beautiful sense of balance, a compositional integrity in each. In addition, in fig. 21 a deftly carved tapper embossed with a snake and at the top a male head with the suggestion of a status hat accompanies the slit-gong. Devisch's analysis of Yaka and Suku slit-gong symbolism appears to be confirmed in this work of art from a neighboring group.

From left to right: Figure 23a: H 8", Figure 23b: H 4 3/4", Figure 23c: H 6 3/4"

Fine examples of another type of musical instrument used by Kongo diviners (nganga) in the Maurer Collection are the kunda, small double-ended wooden bells (figs. 23a, b, c). Wyatt MacGaffey calls attention to the fact that "because musical instruments are also `medicines,' like other medicines they are selected in part for their names or some other association....As a verb, kunda means to salute, to pay homage to. The double shape refers to the function of musical sound in mediating between this world and the world of spirits" (1993:56). The finely carved geometric patterns on the sides of the bells, some mirroring one another, others, as in the beautiful redoubled bell carved from a single piece of wood (fig. 23a), employ contrasting geometric patterns with plain surfaces connected by a twisted rope pattern.


Figure 24:
(H 6")

A small slit-gong created by a carver among the Ngongo people is distinctive in having heads extending from each end of the central drum section, as in fig. 24. The Ngongo live on the margin of the Kuba kingdom some distance from the capital and therefore were less subject to the Bushoong king, although their sculptural art shows clear Kuba court influence and is, therefore, hard to distinguish from that of other groups under the influence of the Bushoong. Ngongo carvings tend to be more stylized and angular (Felix 1987:128). Note the strong shapes with which the artist created the head and face: the prominant forehead; U-shaped ears which curve around narrow, projecting eyes; triangular nose; and tiny mouth.

In marked contrast is a slit-gong by an Ngbaka carver in northwest Zaire (Fig. 25). The simplicity is striking in the conceptualization of head and face: a circle with the imprint of a heart-shaped face with eyes made of buttons, a long nose, and the absence of ears and mouth. The image, so simply defined, is nonetheless very powerful. It is as though the eyes, staring straight at the viewer, see into the inner world of the viewer.


Click here for more.

Click here to go back.


Figure 25:
H 13"