I have been engaged in some recent debates concerning the possible relationship between ancient Egyptians and modern West African cultures. In the midst of the discussion I presented some images for comparison of West African art sculptures that resemble the Bes figure of ancient Egypt. In the midst of this debate I noticed something about the figures that may make an even stronger case for cross continental and cultural influence. If it wasn’t for the debate I probably wouldn’t have noticed this.
What concerns us in this discussion are the poses of the West African figures and what they could possibly mean in our ancient Egyptian figure of Bes and other Egyptian sculptures. Although the figures that were displayed in the initial discussion were from Egypt, Nigeria and Cameroon, the possible meaning of the poses may actually come from the Kongo in central Africa. I will begin by discussing the Kongo figure of the Nkisi Nkondi as a foundation for our discussion.
Nkondi pakalala poseAbove is a figure called Nkondi which is like a diploma given to the Nganga who are the community’s specialists, healers, leaders who deal with social issues. An nganga can be a therapist who is invited by the community Mbongi to deal with any issue that may arise and affect the community.
Before the nganga can discuss the matter he has to put before him his nkondi figure to assure the village that he is qualified to discussmambu (what became mumbo jumbo in the Americas). It is almost like a police officer displaying his badge to assure the home owner that he is in fact a cop and capable of effectively responding to the situation.
The nkondi acts as a contract. In Kongo society the tying of knots with ropes hold meaning as far as documenting history is concerned. For a detailed discussion of this ancient practice among the Bakongo people read Dr. K. kia Bunseki Fu-Kiau’s work Mbongi. The nganga will lead a person to a resolution for their problem, and then they would tie a knot and nail it to the nkondi figure. From that point on, the person who ‘signed’ that document has to act upon that contract within their lifetime.
Some nkondi figures have mirrors as eyes and they are symbols, words to tell you that the nganga is able to ‘see’ what goes on in the actual society. He can deal with the issues that link the living with the dead. An nganga who carries an nkondi informs the community that he is qualified and has the knowledge to deal with situations
Possible Meaning of the Poses
The book Africanisms in American Culture edited by Dr. Joseph E. Halloway documents some of the Africanisms that have survived in the Americas during and after the enslavement period. A good number of the surviving Africanisms that have survived are in the form of poses.
One of the poses that inform our discourse is the arms akimbo pose. The arms akimbo pose with both hands on the hips, pakalala, is a challenge stance. The word itself is a verb of attitude, referring to pricking up one’s ears, unfurling an umbrella, and images of readiness and sharpness (Halloway 2005: 296). To stand with hands on the hips in Kongo proclaims the person is ready to accept the challenges of the situation.
This pose has become the classic Black woman’s pose where she will put both hands on the hips and even provide a good neck roll to signify that she’s ready; that she dares (challenges) you to move forward. In Haiti women often adopt such a challenge pose which is calleddeu men sou kote, often while dancing with a man. The following image was taken by Earl Leaf in the mid 1940s demonstrating this pose in action.
Lina Fussman-Mathon, second from right, watching an informal performance at her home in the mid-1940s.
Photograph by Earl Leaf. Courtesy - Michael Ochs Archives Ltd.
Note 52 of Robert Farris Thompson’s article titled Kongo Influences on African American Artistic Culture (Halloway 2005: 322) is very instructive on just how engrained this expression is in Kongo and Haitian societies. He goes on to state:
“In the n’kondi context, the pakalala gesture symbolized readiness to take on the difficulties and responsibilities of a lawsuit. Andre Pierre maintains (interview with author, Mar. 22, 1981) that the arms akimbo, or deu men sou kote, gesture is associated with the deity the Queen of Kongo because it “demonstrates that she is queen of the earth, the right and the left. And her pacquet is also like that, standing, to represent divine force in four parts, high, low, left and right.” In other words, he reads the gesture cosmographically.”
This speaks directly to the heart of the initial discussion that spawned this article. Here we see the ancient Kongo Dikenga Cosmogram as a living practice among the Bakongo in Central Africa.
You will notice that our Nkondi figure above is standing in the pakalala position. The theory I propose to the reader is that the poses you see in the following images are in fact this pakalala pose that one witnesses in the Kongo.
Court dwarf's were occasionally attributed with supernatural abilities, and some of them made great contributions to the kingdom. Dwarf bronzes often adorned the altars of their kings.
Pygmy figure- a child's stool from the Cameroon
Son of the Yoruba God Obatala. From Ile Ife, Nigeria dated between 1000-1500AD. Photo courtesy of Henry Drewal
Ancient Egyptian God Bes
There are a few things that distinctively identify the ‘Bes’ figure in Africa: 1) the short stature of the person being depicted, believed to be a Batwa, 2) usually the tongue is protruding out, 3) they are usually always wearing a kind of necklace and most have a skull pendant hanging from the necklace, 4) they usually have on a waste belt or rope, and 5) they usually either have both arms to their side or on the hip, or the right hand is up and the left hand is down.
When you see this figure in Africa it is clear that it belongs to the same tradition and these features in these different parts of Africa are by no means a coincidence. The Kongo description of the pakalala pose may help us to better understand the Bes figure and what it means.
Bes is a warrior deity and the protector of childbirth and pregnant women. We can say that he represents the force in nature that protects and drives off conflict. The protruding tongue was a sign of challenge to the forces that harm the coming into being of the child. It should be noted that the Maori people of New Zealand protrude their tongue as part of the haka war dance. This is especially important to us because the Maori people also have a ‘Bes’ figure with tongue out and anthropologists note that it is unique to the Maori people out of Pacific islands. Linguist GJK Campbell-Dunn has demonstrated that the Maori language is in fact related to Niger-Congo. The Nigerian, Cameroonian and Kongo cultures all belong to the Niger-Congo/Kordofanian family of languages.
The Egyptian Bes is also known for dancing in the courts. The above Benin figure caption also mentions that the dwarfs were associated with the kingdom courts. The protruding tongue combined with the hands on the hip (pakalala pose) could indicate that the person isready to meet the challenges of protecting the community. Bes is often seen with a club, sword and clutching a snake in one hand. He is associated with war as these would be instruments needed to symbolize one has the ‘tools’ to meet the one thousand and one challenges of life.
From this inference we can state that Egyptian Bes figure is a sign to the public that the person who Bes is associated with has the knowledge, insight and courage to be the leader, nganga of their community and nation. It should be noted that when you see figures on tomb walls in Egypt or any place in Africa, the figure represents an aspect of the person: a quality if you will. They shouldn't be viewed as depictions of "deities" for the sake of religious enjoyment. They inform us of the kinds of qualities the king or priests possess within that society.
The most dramatic incursion of a Kongo gesture in Haiti is the reemergent biika mambu stance. This stance is frequently called telama lwimbanganga in Northern Kongo. This pose is identifiable as the left hand on the hip and the right hand forward. This became the drum majorette pose that gave way to baton twirling in the United States.
In Kongo, placing the left hand on the hip is believed to press down all evil, while the extended right hand acts to “vibrate” the future in a positive manner. Important women used this pose at dawn to “vibrate positively” the future of town warriors. Advocates used its power to block or end a lawsuit (Halloway 2005: 298). One will notice that this is the pose for the famous Supremes song, “Stop in the name of love.”
This pose can be seen in Egyptian art, but more often than not the hands are reversed. As can be seen in the image below, this figure has the left hand sticking out and the right arm to the side. The meaning behind the Egyptian reliefs could have the same meanings as the Kongo telama lwimbanganga stance. The telema stance has to do with power and mediating force (power grasped and evil contained).
11th Dynasty Egyptian Funerary Statue (Gulbekian Museum)
As can be seen, this is a straight up "bruva"
The Crossroads Pose
The crossroads pose, with right hand up to heaven and left hand parallel to the horizon line, characterizes the niombo figure. The niomboof the Kongo would be equivalent to the orisha of the Yoruba, or the neters of the Egyptians. This gesture is found in Kongo, Cameroon and Nigeria and has made its way to Haiti via vodun. The right hand up and left hand down recalls the anthropomorphic reading of the hand-guards of the mbele a lulendo (knife of authority), the royal swords of execution in ancient Kongo. In Kongo this gesture, on swords andniombo, marked the boundaries between two worlds (upper and lower worlds).
We see this pose on another version of the nkondi figure. We will also observe that the ancient Egyptian Bes is also in this position.
Nkondi (Kongo) with crossroads pose
Unknown Kongo artist and ritual expert, Democratic Republic of the Congo or Angola, Nkisi nkondi power ﬁgure, about 1890, wood and mixed media. Purchased through the Mrs. Harvey P. Hood W’18 Fund, the William B. Jaffe and Evelyn A. Jaffe Hall Fund, the William B. Jaffe Memorial Fund, the William S. Rubin Fund, the Julia L. Whittier Fund and through gifts by exchange; 996.22.30233. On view in the exhibition Art That Lives?
Egyptian Bes with the crossroads pose
This pose relates to the cosmogram mentioned earlier and could signify in the Egyptian the meeting place between the ancestral realm and the manifest realm. Remember that an nganga has the insight to ‘see’ what goes on in the community. That is another way of saying that he has the eyes of the ancestors. The nganga is the link between the living and the dead and this pose informs the wisdom seeker that this person in fact has the wisdom, insight, ability and authority to operate in both the realm of the living and the dead: that he is indeed the link between the realms.
We have posited in this discussion the possibility that the poses and gestures that are meaningful and characteristic in the Kongo regions of Africa can instruct and inform us of the possible meanings of the same poses in ancient Egyptian art. There have been numerous books and articles written linking the ancient Nile Valley cultures of Egypt to those present in the rest of Black Africa. This may prove to be another link in the chain solidifying the cultural and ancestral linkages between Egypt and Black Africa.
The fact that some Kongolese inform us that they once lived in the Great Lakes region and the Sudan brings us closer to the cultural sphere that was ancient Egypt: especially considering the fact that the pharaonic culture came from the south in Sudan. To bring about all of the linkages in the Kongo and West Africa is too wide in scope to address here. Given the role and function of Bes, his prevalence in West and Central Africa and the meaning behind the poses in the Kongo which brings clarity to the figures shown above, one cannot say that these are “chance correspondences.”
I look forward to hearing your ideas and critiques.
Fu-Kiau, K. kia Bunseki. (2007). Mbongi: An African Traditional Political Institution – A Eureka to the African Crisis. African Djeli Publishers. Atlanta, GA.
Halloway, Joseph E. e.d. (2005). Africanisms in American Culture, 2nd Ed. Indiana University Press. Bloomington, IN.
Ramsey, Kate. (2002). Without One Ritual Note: Folklore, Performance and the Haitian State, 1935-1946. Unpublished article.