Katherine McCabe / Gavel Media

Dr. Kyrah Daniels Presents on Congolese Religion and Mirrors

The art, art history, and film departments hosted a department colloquium, entitled “Flashes of Spirit: Mirror Divination and the Healing Arts in 20th Century Congolese Religion,” over zoom on Monday, September 27. 

Professor of art history and African & African Diaspora Studies, Kyrah Daniels spearheaded the talk, summarizing a chapter from her pending book manuscript, “Art of the Healing Gods: Illness and Imbalance and Sacred Arts of the Black Atlantic.” 

Pulling from research gathered from her fieldwork in Haiti and the Democratic Republic of Congo, she analyzed the use of sacred art artifacts as both tools used in ritual healing ceremonies and facilitators of the relationship between humans and spirits in Congolese religions.  

Daniels began her lecture with an overview of her research, explaining her use of an interdisciplinary approach to examine the relationship between spirits, people, and physical and mental health. 

“My book offers a methodological intervention in art history and Africana religious studies by demonstrating that the study of ritual healing arts requires combining art historians' visual and material culture analysis with anthropologists’ ethnographic study of religious healing traditions,” Daniels said. 

In Congolese religions, physical and mental illnesses are directly linked to spiritual imbalances and require the help of priestesses to communicate with the spiritual realm to determine the cause of pain. Various sacred art objects and statues are used to identify the cause of these imbalances, but Daniels focuses her research primarily on the use of mirrors in healing ceremonies. 

“Ultimately I consider how mirrors as divination arts signal the omnipresence of ancestral spirits,” Daniels said. “Furthermore, mirrors remind us of the importance of sustaining communication between visible and invisible worlds as different ways of intuiting knowledge from the ancestral realm.” 

She quoted religion scholar James Fernandez who said that “the reversal of an otherwise identical representation, what is called the enantiomorphic effect, has been suggested as a metaphor for the condition of the dead, particularly in societies which emphasize their continuity and similarity with the living.” 

Daniels explained that this effect is not exclusive to mirrors, but is applicable to all forms of reflective surfaces. She explains how the Earth’s first mirror, water, plays a pivotal role both in these ceremonies and in the overall Congolese religion. Water goddesses, or Simbi, are spirits typically associated with rivers, water, rain, healing, and initiation. 

“Perhaps this is why mirrors communicate so effectively with the ancestors through divination,” Daniels said. “Simbi spirits may recognize the mirror of water as a translation of human messages into their own language of reflections and refracted images.”

Daniels argued that mirrors and reflective surfaces play a much more integral role in Congolese society than just that of a ceremonial tool. When the images seen in the mirror reach beyond the physical world, the mirror becomes an active participant in the ceremony. 

“What happens, however, when mirror-gazing permits a diviner to see not only a reflection of self but to perceive one’s ancestral lineage? Members of one’s lineage depicted or housed in the mirror in this sense become the real diviners of ceremony,” Daniels explained. 

After covering the importance and metaphoric implications attached to these mirrors, Daniels proceeded to describe the various forms and tools these mirrors can be observed in. 

While the mirrors by themselves are often used in ceremonies, they are more poignant when attached to or adorning minkisi (objects to which spirits can attach themselves). These sacred objects are where Daniels rests the majority of her analysis. 

She shifted her focus to a particular kind of minkisi, minkisi nkondi. These statues in particular are minkisi not covered in mirrors but rather nails. While these minkisi are typically seen as hunters, Daniels refutes this claim. 

“I argue that nkisi nkondi is more aptly described as a justice seeker rather than a senseless murderer,” She argued. 

Daniels continued with her argument, highlighting the ambiguous origins of this particular form of minkisi

“A brief historiography of nkisi nkondi reveal their debatable origins as a purely indigenous Congo sacred art form but rather one greatly influenced by European material culture.” She explained. “Catholic missionaries importation of heart-pierced madonnas and bleeding Jesus Christ crucifixes quite possibly inspired the incorporation of blades and nails in nkisi nkondi, even as they were reinterpreted in a Congo religious context.”

Due to the abrasive and provocative manner of these statues, they are typically regarded as “fetish objects” or “power objects” within Western definitions. She refuted this idea, again, pinpointing the implementation of Catholic iconography as the inspiration behind the nails. 

Ironically, these preconceived notions caused by Western intervention are also the basis for the minkisi notoriety within American and European museums. While mirrored minkisi, minkisi detensi, are much more prevalent in Congolese practices, they are far outnumbered by minkisi nkondi, in representation. 

“In this way, the overemphasis of nail-centered minkisi nkondi in museum collections and the scholarly literature may more accurately reflect western imaginaries of the African fetish.” Daniels reflected. “Recognizing the influence of European crucifix and bleeding heart iconography on central African minkisi nkondi, we must reexamine the archives of these so-called primitive religious arts in a cross-cultural framework.” 

Daniels reaffirmed her argument through an analysis of various minkisi detensi, highlighting the relevance mirrored statues have in providing access and maintaining relationships with the spiritual realm. The placement of mirrors on these sacred artifacts determines their use within the ceremony. 

“One often notes small glass shards polished and placed in the center of the stomach protecting and concealing sacred medicines that activate the ritual art object.” Daniels analyzed. “When positioned as the minkisi’s eyes, mirrors allow the figure to perform work in this world with greater insight and clarity.” 

She concluded the lecture with an overarching emphasis on the importance that mirrors have in maintaining connections with the world of humans and spirits. 

“In this way, divinatory mirrors serve as respectful ritual salutes to the spirits and the dead.” She summarized. “Such insights reveal the respectful, creative approaches that Congolese devotees undertake to communicate with the divine which remains eternally present and to pay ritual tribute to the ancestors who they eventually will become.”

After the conclusion of the talk, Daniels opened the floor to questions. 

Tchorzky Eugene posed the question, “how do you bring a lot of those practices and rituals into a contemporary, modern, and constantly advancing world?”

“There are a lot of ways we can see these divination techniques as religious technologies, as ritual technologies. Technology is a manner of doing something; it is a system that one does something,” Daniels responded. 

“What we use today are these digital technologies and I think you're finding some fascinating ways in which these technologies of divination are being updated for the 21st century. One is the power of Zoom, things have been transformed and so people now will conduct readings in divinations online,” Daniels said. 

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