Standing figure - Kongo Nkisi

Renowned for their arresting sculptural presence, Kongo power figures represent one of the most iconic art forms of central Africa. Created collaboratively by an artist and a ritual specialist (nganga), they are conceived to house potent mystical forces and bear stern witness to critical community affairs.

Nkisi (pl. minkisi) is both the name of a spirit and a figure that can be made to contain it. The nganga empowers the figure by embedding animal and plant substances into it, often in a cavity on the stomach, which is covered by a mirror. Thus charged, the nkisi is able to identify and attack a sorcerer who may be causing harm to certain individuals or the community at large; as well, minkisi were used to resolve conflicts among tribe members. Many minkisi are pierced with numerous nails and shards of metal, each of which attests to a resolution between members of the community or an effort to combat evil. While many minkisi brandish a dagger, indicating their role as avenger, some stand with hands akimbo, suggesting their role as Supreme Being.

The nkisi offered here is of the latter description, standing confidently with muscular arms at its hips. Thick, broad shoulders and a weighty head project power and strength, and the expression of the face, with chin slightly raised, carries an imperious impression. Two necklaces, one beaded and one metal, are slung about the figure’s throat and shoulders. Both the projecting belly niche and the metal insertions typical of minkisi are missing in this figure, suggesting they may have been lost (possibly evidenced by the small holes found at various points on the torso) or the figure may not have been used in a ritual context. Despite the liberties in stylization the artist has taken with certain aspects of the anatomy, the hands and feet are carved with precision and lifelike character, with naturalistic placement of the thumbs and detailed, carefully executed toes.

Late 19th century
Wood, metal, fiber, glass beads
Height: 9 in

Kristin M. Jefferson, New York, 1993
Private collection, New York

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