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Art Through Time: A Global View

Ceremony and Society Art: Power Figure (Nkisi nkondi)

» Yombe artist and ritual specialist, Democratic Republic of Congo

Power Figure (Nkisi nkondi)

Power Figure (Nkisi nkondi)
Artist / Origin Yombe artist and ritual specialist, Democratic Republic of Congo
Region: Africa
Date 18th–19th century
Period: 1400 CE – 1800 CE
Material Wood, metal, nails, mirrors, cloth, cordage, beads, and cowrie shells
Medium: Other
Dimensions H: 45 in. (114.30 cm.), W: 18 in. (45.70 cm.), D: 15 in. (38.00 cm.)
Location Fowler Museum, UCLA, Los Angeles, CA
Credit Courtesy of the Fowler Museum at UCLA, Gift of the Wellcome Trust

Minkisi (singular nkisi), often referred to in English as “power figures,” were made by Kongo people, such as the Yombe, residing in the area now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo.

These figures are, in effect, vessels for containing spiritual forces. When brought to life, they are believed to have the power to uncover sources of affliction, to heal, to protect, and even to punish.

nkisi begins with a wooden sculpture, often anthropomorphic or zoomorphic in shape. Once carved, it becomes the responsibility of a ritual specialist, called a nganga, to activate the figure. Thenganga fills special cavities in the sculpture, generally in the head and stomach region, with materials such as ash, soil, herbs, and animal parts that are attributed medicinal and magical properties. Over time, as clients approach the nganga seeking solutions to problems or resolutions to disputes, various objects are added to the nkisi’s exterior. In the case of the nkisi seen here, these objects include cloth strips, cowrie shells, beads, rope, and nails. As items are added to the nkisi, it becomes not only more visually complex, but also more powerful.

While only the nganga can control the supernatural power of the figure, the larger communities may participate in rituals centered on the nkisi. Certain minkisi might have specific uses. This particular figure, for instance, is believed to have served in the administration of justice. Participants in legal proceedings may have pounded in the many nails protruding from the figure either as a means of awakening the spirit within or as testimonials. Nails, which figure prominently in many minkisi, might also represent attempts to drive away destructive forces believed to be the cause of individual ailments or broader social and political ills.

Additional Resources

Blier, Suzanne Preston. The Royal Arts of Africa: The Majesty of Form. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2003.

LaGamma, Alisa. Art and Oracle: African Art and Rituals of Divination. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000.

MacGaffey, Wyatt, and Michael D. Harris. Astonishment & Power: The Eyes of Understanding: Kongo Minkisi/The Art of Renee Stout. Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993.

Thompson, Robert Farris. Flash of Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy. New York: Random House, 1983.

Visona, Monica, et al. A History of Art in Africa. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2003.

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