Angola: ‘The Thinker’

When we visited the Anthropological Museum of Luanda, we were fascinated by a small statue known as ‘The Thinker’, which is the cultural symbol of Angola and to which an evocative apologue is linked.

The National Museum of Anthropology (Museu Nacional de Antropologia), which is located in the Barrio dos Coqueiros of Luanda, is one of the most important in the capital of Angola. It is certainly the oldest, being founded in 1976, just a little less than one year after Angola’s proclamation of independence. The National Museum of Anthropology is a scientific, cultural and educational institution committed to the collection, research, preservation, presentation and spread of Angolan culture in the world.

The most famous of the sculptures exhibited at the Anthropological Museum of Luanda is, beyond any doubt, the 16 cm high statuette, known as ‘The Thinker’. The statue depicts a man with elbows posed on his knees and hands placed on his head, although some scholars think that the sculpture represents an elderly woman. Much has been written on this thin statuette, which was found in 1937 in Lunda, a central African region inhabited by the Cowke people, an ethnic group.

It is amazing how people are fascinated by both the absolute purity of the lines and the ‘modernity’ of this statuette that reminds us of some masterpieces of great contemporary sculptors. The hands that hold the back of the skull tightly with a dynamic gesture, symbolise the tight hermeticism of thought, by actually synthesizing the popular idea of the wisdom of the old man among this ethnicity.

Cokwe elders are, in fact, considered thinkers and philosophers par excellence, given their habit of meditation and their constant search for etiological, cosmological and cosmogonic elements. The strength and depth of thought of these wise people has been handed down to us through an apologue that tradition links to the ‘Thinker’ image.

It is said that the living copy of this statuette was a very old soba (village chief) who lived in a village called Chitato. He used to complain “trees drop their seeds into the ground and so when the die they can be born again, while man is a seed that when placed under the ground does not sprout anymore. All my friends are dead, I’m about to leave and I won’t be able to enjoy the sunlight any more. Why are the stars gloriously eternal and men melancholically mortal?”.

According to the legend, God finally decided to give an answer to this tormenting dilemma. He promised that he would explain everything, as long as a very solid house without doors or windows and with just a narrow entrance was built. The next day the house was built and in front of the great crowd, God made the sun and the moon enter the house and commanded that a dish with food for each person of the village should be put inside the house. Then God made a man and a dog enter the house and they were given their respective dishes with food. Finally, the small entrance of the house was completely walled up. After doing so, God dismissed all the crowd and told the multitude to return there the next day.

The morning after, the people of the village gathered in front of the walled up house, and God ordered that the entrance that had been closed the previous day be reopened and so all the people, to their astonishment, could verify that the sun and the moon, despite the fact that there were no doors or windows, were not inside the house anymore and that the sun was triumphantly coming up over the horizon. The food rations had been left untouched.

While the man and the dog were inside the house and were finishing eating their food rations, God said, “You, man, and your dog have not been able to cross the walls and get out of the house; you eat and that is why you die; the sun and the moon came out of the house even though it was walled up; they did not touch the food, they disappeared and for this reason they are immortal”.

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