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The Art of Nkanu Initiation Rituals
to 03-03-02
Appearing In: 167

The recent acquisition of a rare set of sculpted wall panels used in the complex male initiation rites of Africa prompted the Smithsonian premiere of “Spectacular Display: The Art of Nkanu Initiation Rituals.” The exhibition opens Dec.16 and continues through March 3, 2002 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art.

The exhibition features wall panels, fiber and wooden masks, and other sculptures created for initiation rites—called “nkandu”—of the Nkanu peoples of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola.

“This exhibition is a wonderful example of how art and life are intertwined in African societies,” says Roslyn Walker, director of the National Museum of African Art. “It offers visitors special insight into the power of initiation rituals for the Nkanu peoples and how art plays an essential role in them. Likewise, it confirms that both Americans and Nkanu share common family values.”

During the several months of “nkanda,” when the initiates live in a special enclave outside the community, a dominant theme is the symbolic death and rebirth of the youths who enter “nkanda” as children and re-enter society as men. This rebirth is recognized during the elaborate culminating events. They include vibrant and highly symbolic objects made by the initiates during “nkanda,” costuming, special dances, and masquerade performances with musical accompaniment. Initiation wall panels, which serve as backdrops to the performances and events, are carved with images of men, women and animals and then painted with a variety of colors and designs. “It is the decoration and detail which make the panels unlike any other initiation art in Africa,” said David Binkley, chief curator at the museum, and curator of the exhibition.

The wall panels, figurative sculpture, and wooden and fiber masks, which are worn by the initiates, help teach the desired behaviors and values of adult men in Nkanu society. These highly symbolic images speak of rebirth, emotional and sexual maturity, death and the spirit world, and community values. Participating in “nkanda” teaches the initiates the value of cooperation, friendship, mutual respect, and regard for the authority of the elders and ancestral spirits.

Highlights of the exhibit include five wall panels, which have been reassembled as they once were displayed, on the back walls of a special three-sided enclosure elders erect near the end of “nkanda”

The panels’ background designs encode multiple meanings. Concentric circle and wheel shapes represent the sun and serve as symbols for males; the cowrie shell pattern represents females and indicates good fortune and fertility; and the cross shaped design with circles symbolizes the four stages of life and the rotation of the sun.

Another important object in the exhibition is a Leopard mask, on loan to the Smithsonian from the collection of the Jesuit Fathers, Heverlee (on permanent loan to the Africa Museum, Tervuren, Belgium). The leopard, a metaphor for the chiefs leadership, frequently appears in Nkanu initiation art as a reminder to respect the authority of leaders, elders and ancestors.

A community component of the exhibition will use photography to explore some of the manhood and womanhood initiation activities in African American communities in the Washington, D.C. area that are inspired by and incorporate African rites of passage.

The National Museum of African Art (950 Independence Ave. SW.) is open from 10a.m. until 5:30 p.m. daily. Telephone: (202) 357-2700 or (202) 357-1729 (TTY) National Museum of African Art home page: www.si.edu/nmafa


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