Gesture and Power

Religion, Nationalism, and Everyday Performance in Congo

Gesture and Power

Religious Cultures of African and African Diaspora People

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Book Pages: 304 Illustrations: 17 illustrations Published: December 2015

African Studies, Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Religious Studies

In Gesture and Power Yolanda Covington-Ward examines the everyday embodied practices and performances of the BisiKongo people of the Lower Congo to show how their gestures, dances, and spirituality are critical in mobilizing social and political action. Conceiving of the body as the center of analysis, a catalyst for social action, and as a conduit for the social construction of reality, Covington-Ward focuses on specific flash points in the last ninety years of Congo's troubled history, when embodied performance was used to stake political claims, foster dissent, and enforce power. In the 1920s Simon Kimbangu started a Christian prophetic movement based on spirit-induced trembling, which swept through the Lower Congo, subverting Belgian colonial authority. Following independence, dictator Mobutu Sese Seko required citizens to dance and sing nationalist songs daily as a means of maintaining political control. More recently, embodied performance has again stoked reform, as nationalist groups such as Bundu dia Kongo advocate for a return to precolonial religious practices and non-Western gestures such as traditional greetings. In exploring these embodied expressions of Congolese agency, Covington-Ward provides a framework for understanding how embodied practices transmit social values, identities, and cultural history throughout Africa and the diaspora.


"Attention to west-central African dance histories and evocative descriptions of the author’s participation in performance events enrich the study, with a chapter on 'dancing disorder' during the dictatorial days of Mobutu Sese Seko among the book’s strongest contributions to humanistic Africanist literature. Highly recommended." — A. F. Roberts, Choice

"Gesture and Power is an extraordinary work. . . . [It] provides serious and fertile historical and ethnographic material and offers a solid methodological format and an insightful perspective on African embodied politics and religious practices in both the past and the present." — Annalisa Butticci, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

"Yolanda Covington-Ward has rightly constructed a remarkable book that seeks to provide valuable insight on the dynamics of power, nationalism, religion, and performances in Congo." — Genevieve Nrenzah, Reading Religion

"[Covington-Ward's] attention to the microdynamics of gesture brings the study of rite and ritual into the domain of the evetyday and highlights the profundity of common acts as makers of religious and political meaning. In doing so, she raises questions about position and positionality that are pertinent beyond the powerful dynamics of religion and politics in Congo." — Emma Wild-Wood, Church History

"The author’s theoretical points are sharp, and they are presented in an accessible way." — Jeremy Rich, Journal of Anthropological Research

"Covington-Ward’s focus on the body and her exploration of the everyday use of gestures, as well as her discussion of the relationship between civil religion and African nationalism, makes her book a valuable contribution to the fields of African studies, religious studies, and anthropology. Gesture and Power is a recommended purchase for all academic libraries supporting these subjects." — Nicole C. Westerdahl, Journal of Religious & Theological Information

"A tremendous amount of labor went into this study and the end product is a compelling, engaging, intelligent, and enjoyable text, a fine scholarly contribution to the literature on religion in Central Africa. Small wonder thus that the book is adorned with glowing endorsements on the back cover by such distinguished anthropologists of African religion as Paul Stoller and Bennetta Jules-Rosette." — Terry Rey, Religion

"Covington-Ward has produced a very detailed account of colonial and postcolonial trajectories and bodily memories in contemporary Central Africa." — Ramon Sarró, Africa

"The reader interested in religion and politics in Africa will find in this book a helpful historical introduction to the case of Lower Congo prophetism and Zairian animation politique. Beyond this academic interest, it will surely make the reader discover and think about the political implications of gestures in his/her own everyday life." — Peter Lambertz, Anthropos

"Covington-Ward contributes to existing scholarship by foregrounding the importance of everyday embodied performances in the production and contestation of spiritual and political authority. Moreover, in and through her explicit focus on body politics, she highlights the profoundly gendered and racialized dynamics of mundane performances, and illustrates the complex ways in which race and gender affect the interactions between these performances and broader structures of power." — Thomas Hendriks, Journal of African History

"A fine blend of Congo’s colonial history, an impressive page of Cultural anthropology, an introduction to African body/performance studies, and a crisp work on sociology of religion. . . . One of the finest works on ethnography given its style of description, rich theoretical background, and methodology." — Adfer Rashid Shah, African Studies Quarterly

"Gesture and Power makes very important contributions to our knowledge of cultural embodiment, African social life, and the political importance of everyday performance. This book is a deeply researched and profoundly experienced work that is the result of substantive and sensitive fieldwork in Lower Congo. Impressive in its scope, its depth, and its expression, Gesture and Power will prompt much important debate in the years to come."  — Paul Stoller, author of Yaya’s Story: the Quest for Well-Being in the World

"Groundbreaking, intriguing, and ethnographically rich, Gesture and Power is a provocative and significant contribution to the study of gesture, performance, religion, and micropolitics in the Congo." — Bennetta Jules-Rosette, author of Josephine Baker in Art and Life: The Icon and the Image


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Yolanda Covington-Ward is Assistant Professor of Africana Studies at the University of Pittsburgh.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments  ix

Introduction: Gesture and Power  1

I. Performative Encounters, Political Bodies

1. Neither Native nor Stranger: Places, Encounters, Phophecies  37

II. Spirits, Bodies, and Performance in Belgian Congo

2. "A War between Soldiers and Prophets": Embodied Resistance in Colonial Belgian Congo, 1921  71

3. Threatening Gestures, Immoral Bodies: Kingunza after Kimbangu  107

III. Civil Religion and Performed Politics in Postcolonial Congo

4. Dancing with the Invisible: Everyday Performances under Mobutu Sese Seko  137

5. Dancing Disorder in Mobutu's Zaire: Animation Politique and Gendered Nationalisms  165

IV. Re-creating the Past, Performing the Future

6. Bundu dia Kongo and Embodied Revolutions: Performing Kongo Pride, Transforming Modern Society  187

Conclusion: Privileging Gesture and Bodies in Studies of Religion and Power  227

Glossary  233

Notes  235

References  253

Index  275
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Finalist, 2016 Clifford Geertz Prize, presented by the Society for the Anthropology of Religion

Winner, 2017 Elliott P. Skinner Book Award, presented by the Association for Africanist Anthropology

Winner, Amaury Talbot Prize for African Anthropology, presented by the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland

Finalist, 2017 Albert J. Raboteau Book Prize

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-6036-0 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-6020-9
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