Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History



  • Power Figure (Nkisi), 19th–20th century
    Kongo peoples; Democratic Republic of Congo
    Wood, paint, nails, cloth, beads, shells, arrows, leather, nuts, twine; H. 23 5/32 in. (58.7 cm)
    The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979 (1979.206.127)

    This striking sculpture is an nkisi (pl. minkisi) from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Minkisi are the creation of a sculptor and an nganga (pl. banganga), a ritual specialist in Kongo society. An nkisi is essentially a container of spiritual forces that are directed to investigate the underlying cause of some chronic problem. As spiritual experts, banganga are approached by clients to address any of a multitude of crises that may emerge in the community, including illness, political instability, and social strife. Minkisi are essential to the nganga's profession, creating a focal point from which to draw upon the spirit realm and its powers. Just as minkisi are directed toward specific ends, the banganga that own and control them may be specialized to address specific issues. For instance, only experienced banganga assume the responsibility of the most powerful minkisi, those concerned with political matters and the administration of justice.

    After a sculptor carves the figure at the core of the nkisi, it is the responsibility of the nganga to customize it by adding symbolic materials. Consequently, each nkisi is a unique creation, and can be controlled only by the nganga that conceived of its arrangement. The nganga begins by packing various "medicines" about the head and body of the figure. These are weighted with sacred power and spiritual implications, and are often tightly wrapped in knots and nets to give visual expression to the idea of contained forces. The diverse ingredients of the medicines may include special earths and stones, leaves and seeds, parts of animals, bird beaks and feathers, and are specifically combined to attract and direct forces to the desired goal. The figure's belly, or mooyo—which, not coincidentally, also translates as "life" or "soul"—is another spiritual focal point, packed with medicines and then sealed with resin.

    As the figure is used and reused, the addition of materials enhances its ability to direct forces while simultaneously augmenting its visual intricacy. As illustrated in this example, nails, bits of cloth, beads, bells, even miniature carvings have all been added to literally and figuratively load the figure with spiritual power. Many of the objects are tied to a cloth collar around the neck, a feature not commonly found on other minkisi. While prevalent teeth and wide, aggressive eyes characterize many other minkisi; this example is further distinguished by the serenity of its facial expression, a sharp contrast to the rusted nails and complex assemblage of accoutrements that ornament the body of the figure below.

    The kingdom of Kongo was at the height of its power in 1482, when Portuguese sailors first visited the coast of Central Africa. Founded between 1350 and 1400, the kingdom was a model of centralized government, with a divine king and a network of advisers, provincial governors, and village chiefs who ruled as many as three million people. Portuguese navigators brought with them Catholic missionaries, who converted the kings of Kongo during the sixteenth century. It has been suggested that the practice of piercing the nkisi with nails, spikes, or other elements was adopted from Christian images of martyred saints introduced in the area during this time. Figurative wood sculptures such as these are sometimes called "fetishes," a misleading word derived from the term feitico, which was used by the early Portuguese explorers to describe anything artificial or manmade.


    Although this artwork appears on the 20th-century segment of the Timeline, it is ascribed a date of 19th–20th century.

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  • Power Figure (Nkisi), 19th–20th century
    Kongo peoples; Democratic Republic of Congo
    Wood, paint, nails, cloth, beads, shells, arrows, leather, nuts, twine; H. 23 5/32 in. (58.7 cm)
    The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979 (1979.206.127)

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