The conceptual dichotomy of civilization and the wilderness in African systems of thought w.r.t. Mande art and Kongo minkisi

It would be too simplistic to understand the dichotomy between wilderness and civilization as merely one of nature and culture. It is certainly not the case in African systems of thought, including that of Mande. In this sense, the European philosophical understanding of nature as that deriving from ‘natural law’ would not apply to analyzing Mande art and culture. We could extend the same observation to the dresses worn by Mande warriors as they enact the dichotomies of wilderness and civilization in ritualized ceremonies. More metaphors are interpreted in the artful design of Mande dresses. For example, they stand for the Mande concept of ‘jayan’, which means clarity and precision. The Mande warrior costumes also represent the concept of ‘dibi’ which captures the darkness and danger of the night. The Mande costumes have thus come to signify ultimate power, arcane knowledge and great distinction for those wearing them. Although today, the idea of living as one with the wilderness is merely nostalgic as the Mande have integrated into urban areas.

In ancient Congolese culture, supernatural power was believed to be contained in the Minkisi. A miniature statue of the human form with nails pierced into the torso and limbs, the Minkisi is revered as the connection to the supernatural world. The nails symbolize a ‘pact’ with the powers of the other world, whereby its human appellants are offered protection and grace. In this sense there are similarities between the biblical understanding of the Cross and crucifixion and the Minkisi.


Enid Schildkrout, Ife Art in West Africa: An Introduction to the Exhibition – Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria

Kathy Curnow, Alien or Accepted: African Perspectives on the Western ‘Other’ in 15th and 16th Century Art

Martha G. Anderson, Christine Mullen Kreamer, Wild Spirits: Strong Medicine, African Art and the Wilderness

Patrick R. McNaughton, The Shirts That Mande Hunters Wear

Barbara E. Frank, More Than Wives and Mothers: The Artistry of Mande Potters

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